August delivery from Japan

Just enjoyed the excitement of opening another box of prints from Japan – it’s always fun to see if the auction photos were anything like the actual print. Sometimes what you get is a bit worse, but mostly what you receive is better than the poor auction photos. 

The next 2 prints are from the same play but performances 10 years apart (Meiji14 & Meiji24). I have been looking for prints of this play for years because the story is particularly sweet, and finally got 2. The story goes:

A young nobleman called Abe no Yasuna is injured while saving a fox from a hunter. Later a young woman called Kuzunoha tends his wounds and helps him to return home – she is the human manifestation of the fox he saved. He falls in love with the girl, marries her and she bears him a child who turns out very clever and she believes that the boy has inherited her supernatural powers. One day years later she notices that the boy has seen her tail and she understands that she must return to being a fox. With her hands turning back into paws she paints a poem on the wall holding the brush in her mouth, telling her husband to meet her in the forest. They go to find her and eventually she reveals herself to them and gives her son the power to understand the language of animals. 

Most prints of this story show Kuzunoha writing her farewell poem on a paper screen. In kabuki performances the character is usually played by a senior actor who is expected to write the full poem with his mouth – quite an amazing feat of skill! 

Kunisada III (Ōju Kunisada): the “Kuzu-no-Ha” scene from the play “Ashiya Dōman Ōuchi Kagami”, 1891
Chikashige: the “Kuzu-no-Ha” scene from the play “Ashiya Dōman Ōuchi Kagami”, 1881

The next print is quite unique, I believe, in that it is the only yakusha-e I have ever seen where the printers have sprayed white ink onto the paper to create the effect of snow. Each print I have ever seen of this design has a different pattern of snow flakes. In standard snow scenes the snowflakes are carved into the blocks individually. 

Chikashige: Onoe Kikugorō V & Ichikawa Sadanji I in the play “Seki Konroku Haru no Komagiku”, staged at the Shintomi-za theatre from April 1883

I initially skimmed past this print because I thought it was one of the many war prints that I don’t collect but then I recognised the faces of the main characters and realised that they were actors – this is a yakusha-e. A bit of Googling later and I had the basic information that it features a scene of a Japanese victory against Qing China at the river Anseongcheon in South Korea.   

Kunisada III (Kōchōrō): Nakamura Shikan IV & Ichikawa Yaozō VII in the play “Nippon daishōri Anjōgawa”, staged at the Haruki-za theatre from September 1894

The next print on the face of it was a bit boring but I quite like these “shin kyogen” prints, as I call them, from the style of the title panel, which always starts “{name of theatre} Shin Kyōgen …” and were used to advertise up-coming plays. This type of print design started around 1890 and nearly always had pale backgrounds with simple designs. 

Anyway, in this case the play (“Master Cabinetmaker Chōji”) turned out to be quite interesting in that it tells the tale of a cabinet maker who killed 2 benefactors that he believed were the parents who abandoned him as a baby. His trial proves to be controversial because he escapes on a technicality when it is revealed that the woman he killed was his mother but the man was her lover and they had both conspired themselves to kill his biological father. The judge rules that Chōji was avenging the death of his father and the crime was therefore justified. 

Kunichika: Onoe Kikugorō V, Nakamura Fukusuke IV & Onoe Matsusuke IV in the play “Sashimonoshi Meijin Chōji” (指物師名人長次, “Master Cabinetmaker Chōji”), staged at the Shintomi-za theatre from October 1895

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