Flowers of the Theatrical World: Nakamura Utaemon V as Owasa
(Rien no Hana: Nakamura Utaemon V)
with pale grey-blue background embellished with light silver mica; signed at right, Toyonari ga with oval date seal Taisho ju (Taisho 9 ), with rectangular artist's approval seal Toyonari on lower left margin, self-published with the support of the Yamamura Koka Hanga Kankokai (Publication Society of Yamamura Koka's prints), 1921
dai oban tate-e 16 1/4 by 11 3/8 in., 41.2 by 28.9 cm
The artist Yamamura Koka was particularly well-suited for the subject of actor prints as he was himself an enthusiast of the theatrical arts of the time. Koka collected ukiyo-e prints and in 1919 he published Shibai nishiki-e shusei (Compendium of Theatrical Woodblock Prints). He understood the significance of the plays and the histories and talents of the various actors.
This print is from the untitled self-published series popularly known as Flowers of the Theatrical World (Rien no hana). After producing four kabuki actor portraits with the publisher Watanabe Shozaburo (1885-1962), the first appearing in 1916 and the last in 1919, a group of collectors formed the Publication Society of Yamamura Koka's Prints which enabled the artist to issue the series of twelve prints from 1920-1921, the first prints he would produce bearing his go (artist name) Toyonari. All of the prints illustrate actors in character presented dramatically against a solid background. Eight are embellished with mica which visually references coveted mica ground 'big head' portraits by golden-age ukiyo-e artists such as Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) and Toshusai Sharaku (active 1794-1795).
The clue to identifying the role is the piece of red fabric in the foreground. The character is Owasa from the play Gosho Zakura Horikawa no Youchi (Imperial Palace Cherry Blossoms and Horikawa Night Attack) a maruhonmono (drama originally based on puppet theater). In this scene, popularly known as the Benkei Joshi scene, Shinobu, a lady-in-waiting, is asked to give up her life in place of Yoshitsune's wife, Kyonokimi. Shinobu is surprised but agrees to submit as a loyal retainer. Her mother, Owasa, refuses to accept it and explains that her daughter has never met her father. In fact, even Owasa herself doesn't know his name or what he looks like- all she has is a red sleeve her one time lover left behind. She shows the sleeve that she has kept with her always as a memento of the one night they were together. Owasa is unable to sway the attackers, and the final blow comes from a sword through a fusuma panel. Benkei emerges from behind the panel holding a bloody sword and pulls a matching red sleeve from beneath his kimono. He was Owasa's lover, and he has just murdered his own daughter.
Dorothy Blair, Modern Japanese Prints, Toledo Museum of Art, 1930, no. 203
Carolyn M. Putney, et al., Fresh Impressions: Early Modern Japanese Prints, 2013, p. 233, cat. 210 (edition of 150)
Andreas Marks, Seven Masters: 20th Century Japanese Woodblock Prints from the Wells Collection, 2015, pp. 64-73, and Yamamura Koka (Toyonari) Exhibition History, p. 211
(inv. no. 10-2740)
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