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Archive: Utagawa Kunisada I (歌川國貞); later called Toyokuni III (豊國)

Odori keiyô Edo-e no sakae
Ichiyôsai Hinashi Toyokuni ga (一陽斎雛獅豊国)
No personal artist seal; Toshidama seal (年玉印); Censor Seal: kiwame (極印) meaning "approved"
Nôshûya Yasubei
7/1858 (date seal = Uma-shichi (year of the horse, 7th month: 午七 彫師)
(H x W)
Ôban nishiki uki-e triptych
36.3 x 73.0 cm
Very good color, good condition, unbacked; slight fading, mild album creases on two sheets, slight soil (esp. in upper right corners), a few repaired thin spots and one small wormhole in margin
Price (USD/¥):

Odori keiyô Edo-e no sakae (Superb Edo pictures illustrating dances: 踊形容江戸絵栄) depicts the interior of a theater during a performance of Shibaraku (Wait a moment!: 暫). An alternative translation with a different emphasis could be "Dance Illustrating the Glamour of Edo."


Utagawa Kunisada I (later Toyokuni III) has depicted Ichikawa Danjûrô on the hanamachi (lit., "flower path" or raised walkway: 花道). Danjûrô wears the instantly recognizable Shibaraku costume and fantastical kumadori (face makeup, lit., "taking the shadows": 隈取). Shibaraku was a showpiece comprising a standardized but exciting confrontation scene in kabuki kaomise (face-showing: 顔見世) or introduction performances. Kaomise took place in Edo from the first day of November to the tenth day of December, and in Kamigata (depending on the year) ranging from late November to mid December by the lunar calendar. Set pieces such as Shibaraku were typical of the aragoto ("rough stuff": 荒事) style of playwriting and acting that was the specialty of Edo kabuki. It was created by Ichikawa Danjûrô I (1660-1704) around 1697 and became more or less obligatory in season-opening Edo-kabuki performances by the early eighteenth century, while also being featured in many season openings in Kamigata.

The scene takes place at the Tsuruoka Hachimangû Shrine in Kamakura. The evil lord Kiyohara no Takehira has usurped imperial power and taken loyalists prisoner, including their leader Prince Kamo Jirô Yoshitsuna and his betrothed Princess Katsura-no-Mae. Takehira plans to execute them, but a loud "Shibaraku" is bellowed from the end of the hanamichi, whereupon the imposing warrior Kagemasa arrives to rescue them.

The audience is a central "player" in this design — a fine example of a uki-e ("floating picture" or perspective view: 浮絵 or 浮繪). Fascinating to modern viewers, the interior panoply of theater patrons provides an exciting glimpse into the varied behavior of audience members during kabuki performances in the Tokugawa period.

Designs by ukiyo-e artists depicting kabuki theater interiors during performance are not easy to come by and are highly sought-after by collectors. Other impressions can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (11.44263a-c); Edo Tokyo Museum (88202853); Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum (118-0087, 88, 89); and the Art Institute of Chicago (1939.1522.1).

P.S. One of our readers (LW) has provided the following information: "Kunisada's kabuki uki-e ... contains one of several known self-portraits, showing him in the center of the audience with a tenugui on his head with toshidama-ring design and his face slightly distorted after a stroke." The figure referred to in LW's note is in the second row from the main stage and fifth "column" from the hanamichi. He wears a blue tenugui (cotton towel: 手ぬぐい) on his head and is watching Danjûrô.