Kunisada: Actor with Robe featuring the King of Hell, Emma-O (Sold)

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Artist: Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865)
Title: Actor with Robe of the King of Hell, Emma-O
Series: Eiyu  mitate junin otoko (Prosperous Actors of Kabuki as Ten Dandy Men)
Date: Ca. 1848

We see a kabuki actor with his back turned to us, displaying his kimono with vivid scenes of Hell. The upper portion has two deceased people bowing before a large figure–behind them looks to be the Plain of Swords, a place of intense suffering. There is also a large wheel of fire on the back of the garment.  The bottom part is designed with a scene of Enma’s judgement, when one may go to gokuraku paradise or jigoku hell, according to the karma of each person. Emma-O, the King of Hell,  sits in front of  the record book in which good and bad deeds of a person are recorded and used for his judgment day. We see a scene from the life of the deceased in the mirror, where they are raising their sword to someone on the ground. The scales are there as part of the judgment, and the oni hell minions are there to do their duty of exacting punishment. The red one at the very bottom has a ferocious weapon which he brandishes towards poor souls who may be cooking in molten lava from the karma of their own evil deeds. 

The character shown may be that of Benzui Chobei, but how that character relates to the Hell scene is difficult to parse. The character Banzui Chobei as the boss of chivalrous street knights appeared in the kabuki play “Ukiyo-zuka hiyoku no inazuma  written by Tsuruya Nanboku IV,  performed for the first time at Edo Ichimura-za in March 1823. Ichikawa Danjuro VII played two roles in this drama: Banzui Chobei and Fuwa Banzaemon. Banzui Chobei, the chivalrous strong man tries to mediate between the group of street knights (machi yakko) and the retainers of shogun (hatamoto yakko), but eventually he sacrifices himself. 

Regarding this series of ten actor portraits, the first word, eiyu, is a play on words, as it is normally written as 英雄, meaning “ hero“ (of a war). However here  eiyu  is written as 栄優, referring to “the most popular actors. The second word, mitate, means “comparison” and junin otoko means “ten men”. In  Kabuki “Date-otoko” means “ninkyo,“ men of chivarlous spirit, namely those with the edokko (Edoite) temperament. They are very popular figures of Kabuki dramas. 

The actors in this set wear similar styles of kimono and the attributes of dandy men of Edo. These include a sword, a shakuhachi flute, a tobacco pouch, and a towel.  On each fantastic kimono design we see  the related scene of the actors and their roles in Kabuki drama. The name of the series is followed by the subtitles with the names of their famous kabuki roles. Although Kunisada omits the names of the actors, he puts many visual hints related to the stories and the actors , especially the scenes on their kimono layers and the symbols on the obi sash belts and towels.  Therefore the people of Edo at that time knew exactly who they were. Each title cartouche is framed with the specific attributes of the plays. The names of the actors did not appear on the series due to the fact that the censorship under the Tenpo Reforms restricted the publication of Kabuki actors’ portraits. In 1845 the restrictions officially ended; however the publishers of Ukiyo-e were cautious and it is said that they continued to stick to the restrictions. The artists had to be especially creative during this time when it came to actor prints.  (With thanks to Michiko Sato-Grube for her research on this artwork.)

Condition: Excellent impression and color. Very good condition. Binding holes at right. Unbacked and untrimmed.
Dimensions: ôban (35.6 x 24.5 cm)
Publisher: Sugi-U
Signature: Upon the request of the publisher (hangimoto no oju )  Kochoro Toyokuni ga (with Toshidama seal in red)