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Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861)

Kabuki Actor Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Jiraiya with a Monster Toad

Medium: Woodblock Print
Date: 1852
Size (H x W): 14 x 30 (inches)
Publisher: Kiya Sojiro (Kobokudo)
Seals: Watanabe and Mera, date seal, shita uri
Signature: Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi ga
Condition: Good color and impression, light surface soiling and wear, lightly trimmed, small paper on verso.



Perched on the back of the giant toad he conjured, the robber Jiraiya (played by Ichikawa Danjuro VIII) faces off with his master's enemy, Orochimaru (played by Orochimaru). In the right sheet, Yashagoro (played by Ichikawa Kuzo II) draws his sword, while to the left, Princess Tagoto holds a halberd (played by Iwai Kumesaburo III). Inspired by Kunisada's illustration from the popular serial novel Tale of the Hero Jiraiya, Kuniyoshi brings the dramatic scene at Mt. Myoko to life with sweeping scale. Though the tale was adapted for the Kabuki stage in 1852, this composition does not match the staging at the Kawarasaki Theater in 1852. Thus, scholars have suggested that this design was released in promotion of the upcoming performance.

About the artist

The son of silk dyer, Kuniyoshi Utagawa was born into the Igusa family in Edo. Little is known about his very early years, though he is said to have shown remarkable talent from a young age. Kuniyoshi began his ukiyo-e career as a pupil of Shunei. At age 14 he was accepted to study the art of woodblock printing under Toyokuni I and, in time, would become one of his most successful students. In 1814, he left Toyokuni’s studio to pursue a career as an independent ukiyo-e artist. Initially, he had little success, selling tatami mats in order to support himself. However, his fortunes changed in 1827 with his dramatic series 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. From that point forward, the public hungered for his portrayals of famous samurai and legendary heroes. Kuniyoshi Utagawa worked across all genres, producing some brilliant landscapes and charming bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women). He died in the spring of 1861 from complications of a stroke.

In direct contrast to the peaceful views of a scenic Japan provided by Hiroshige and Hokusai, the following decades saw a rise of the fierce, fearsome and fantastical in ukiyo-e. Kuniyoshi welcomed this changing public taste. He had a ravenous imagination and the full scope of his work reveals an aesthetic sensibility capable of capturing almost any experience. No doubt, however, his particular genius felt most at home in the world of martial glory, where epic battles decided the fate of empires and fierce warriors clashed to the death. Kuniyoshi's Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints were so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.