Kunisada: Kabuki Actor with Robe Featuring a Heian Nobleman
Artist: Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865)
Title: Actor with Robe featuring a Nobleman and Plovers
Series: Eiyu mitate junin otoko (Prosperous Actors of Kabuki as Ten Dandy Men)
Date: Ca. 1848
Here we see an unnamed kabuki actor with a robe that features a Heian period nobleman watching as plovers fly overhead. The upper part of his kimono has a landscape with the torii gate of Hikawa Jinja (shrine) and hills beneath clusters of cherry blossoms. The bottom portion shows a scene of the Heian Period: in a small boat we see a nobleman with two attendants, one holding his sword. The actor’s under-kimono features stylized ducks. The viewers of the time would have known the story from this quick glimpse of the main character.
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 chivalrous 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)
Signature: Upon the request of the publisher (hangimoto no oju ) Kochoro Toyokuni ga (with Toshidama seal in red)