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Archive: Kishikuni (岸國)

Nakamura Utaemon III as Ishikawa Goemon in Kinmon gosan no kiri at the Naka no Shibai, Osaka
Kishikuni ga (きし国画)
No artist seal
No publisher seal
(H x W)
Ôban nishiki-e
39.3 x 26.3 cm
Excellent deluxe edition, on thick paper
Very good color and condition, unbacked; stray pigment in Hokusai-like wave and LR corner tile, tarnishing on upper pillar and near lotus at UR due to typical de-oxidation
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The historical Ishikawa Goemon was a notorious masterless samurai (rônin) during the reign of the shôgun Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At age sixteen he murdered three men while attempting to steal from his master. After his escape, he lived as a bandit for the next two decades until, in 1594, he was finally captured during a failed attempt to kill Hideyoshi. Goemon met a grisly end by being boiled in oil.

The theatrical Goemon was transformed into a hero ― fearless, elusive, and endowed with magical powers. The first staging of Goemon’s exploits occurred in the 1680s. Kinmon gosan no kiri (金門五三桐) premiered in 1788 as a five-act drama (it was renamed to Sanmon gosan no kiri for its premiere in Edo in 1800). It recounts Goemon's efforts to take revenge against Mashiba Hisayoshi (a pseudonym for the historical Hideyoshi), the enemy of both his adoptive and natural fathers. The gosan ("five, three [of paulownia]") in the title refers to the five flowers on the three stems above the paulownia (kiri) leaves, Hideyoshi’s particular version of the kiri crest (visible on each sleeve), for centuries symbolic of imperial and shogunal power.

While admiring the beautiful hanging cherry blossoms, a hawk flies to Goemon atop the main gate of the Nanzen Temple in Kyoto. The bird holds a kimono sleeve in its beak with an inscription — written in blood — informing him that his murdered father was involved in a plot to overthrow Hideyoshi in the name of the Chinese emperor.


Goemon is depicted on the balcony of the Nanzen Temple gate, where he is hiding from Hisayoshi, though still finding the time to admire the cherry blossoms (visible at the lower right). Below the balcony a pilgrim will soon appear — Hisayoshi in disguise, hunting for his enemy Goemon. (The bandit's bushy wig was meant to signal that he had been on the run for months, unable to shave his pate.)

The temple gate represented one of kabuki's most impressive settings, with a magnificent vermilion gate operated by a mechanical lift that elevated the balcony high above the stage. The orange colorant used in Kishikuni's print — a substitute for the conventional vermilion of the famous gate — dominates the palette of this design.

Hôgadô Kishikuni's (芳雅堂) works are rare. He was active circa 1821-1825 and appears to have been a pupil of Yoshikuni. We have not yet located another impression of this design.