Katsukawa Shunei, 1762-1819
Ichikawa Yaozo III as Oboshi Yuranosuke
signed Shun'ei ga, with publisher's seal Iwa (Iwatoya Kisaburo of Eirindo), ca. 1795
oban tate-e 14 3/8 by 9 1/8 in., 36.6 by 23.2 cm
This print is from an untitled series of oban depicting actors in roles from two concurrent productions of Kanadehon Chushingura (Treasury of Loyal Retainers) staged at the Miyako-za and Kiri-za theaters in the fourth lunar month of 1795 (a third production opened at the Kawarasaki-za the next month as apparently the market for this play was insatiable). Published by Iwatoya Kisaburo, prints from the series are quite rare, with eighteen recorded designs, each depicting a full-length figure against a plain background in the same manner as the Toyokuni I (1769-1825) series Portraits of Actors on Stage (Yakusha butai no sugata-e) initiated the previous year, although without the actor's names, house, roles or production specified. At the time the series was produced, the actors portrayed would have been obvious to the kabuki fans who acquired these souvenirs of the performances, however, the scarcity of extant impressions seems to have contributed to a blind spot in research, and as such, some remain open to interpretation. Moreover, while playbills and seasonal rosters advertising the various theaters and their productions can provide insight, kabuki portraits don't always correlate precisely with those records.
In the case of this portrait, the actor's costume provides one indisputable attribution the role could be none other than that of the famous hero of the Chushingura, Oboshi Yuranosuke. The identification of the actor playing the role has been less certain. In the few instances that this print has surfaced, he was first tentatively identified (while in the La Véel Collection) as "perhaps" Bando Hikosaburo III (1754-1828), who was known to have played the role at the Miyako-za in 1795; or as Sawamura Sojuro III (1753-1801), likely based on a famous bust portrait by Toyokuni I of Sojuro as Yuranosuke which he played the following year at the Kiri Theater in 1796 (see Stern 1969, AIC no. 1925.3142). However, while the actor portrayed in this print bears a passing resemblance to Hikosaburo, his facial features are more similar to those of Sojuro. Clark's discussion of this series redirects our attention to the 1795 season and the production at the Kiri-za where the actor in the role of Yuranosuke was played by Ichikawa Yaozo III (Suketakaya Takasuke II, 1747-1818), and he notes that an impression of the Shun'ei portrait of the actor in the role is "present location unknown." A comparison with portraits of Yaozo by Shun'ei and other artists (see reference images) reveals a noticeable and understandable similarity with Sojuro, considering they were brothers, and an unmistakable correlation with the facial features of this portrait, which appears to be one of perhaps two extant impressions of this design.
The role of Oboshi Yuranosuke is the determined leader of the forty-seven ronin who successfully conspire over a period of two years to avenge the wrongful punishment of their master who was forced to commit seppuku due to an unforgivable transgression at the shogun's castle. Throughout most of the play, while the ronin disperse to different locations to lay low and hatch a plan, Yuranosuke puts on an act of being a degenerate drunk who is incapable and uninterested in seeking vengeance. In this print, Yaozo's troubled expression hints at the other side of the complex character: the assertive Yuranosuke who, as a result of his unwavering loyalty and cunning planning, achieves the revenge he promised his dying master.
Ernest Le Véel (1874-1951)
Shoriya Aragoro, kabuki21.com
Harold P. Stern, Master Prints of Japan: Ukiyo-e Hanga, 1969, pp. 274-275, no. 146 (Sawamura Sojuro III as Oboshi Yuranosuke performed at the Kiri Theater, 1796 by Toyokuni I; Art Institute of Chicago, accession no. 1925.3142)
Matthi Forrer, The Baur Collection: Japanese Prints, 1994, G43 (1794 portrait of the brothers Sojuro and Yaozo together)
Timothy Clark, The Actor's Image: Print Makers of the Katsukawa School, 1994, p. 353 (on the 1795 Shun'ei series)
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