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Artist: Shunbaisai Hokuei (春梅斎北英)

Print: Asao Takumi I (浅尾内匠) as Naosuke Gonbei (直介権兵へ) and Ichikawa Sukejūrō IV (市川助十郎) as Hamiya Iemon (羽宮伊右衛門) on the right, and Onoe Kikugorō III (尾上菊五郎) as Satō Yomoshichi (佐藤与茂七) on the left in the play Azumakaido Yotsuya Kaidan

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Dates: created,1831
Dimensions: 10.5 in,15.0 in,Overall dimensions
Medium: Japanese color woodblock print
Inscription:

Signed: Shunbaisai Hokuei ga
春梅斎北英画
Publisher: Honya Seishichi (Marks 123 - seal 25-527)

Related links: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Lyon Collection (right sheet);Hankyu Culture Foundation - right panel; Hankyu Culture Foundation - left panel; Hankyu Culture Foundation - fascinating 1831 Kunisada print like the right panel;

Physical description:

Osaka Prints writes of this diptych:

Background

Tōkaidō [Azumakaidō] Yotsuya kaidan (Ghost story along the eastern sea road at Yotsuya: 東海道四谷怪談) is the most popular of all kabuki ghost plays, an 1825 masterpiece by the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV. (An alternate reading of Tōkaidō would be Azumakaidō.) It is one of many kaidan mono (ghost plays: 怪談物) in kabuki, and a very popular theme in popular literature and song.

Oiwa's husband Iemon — a down-on-his-luck rōnin (lit., "wave man" or masterless samurai: 浪人) reduced to making oil-paper umbrellas — despairs over his ill fortune, made worse by Oiwa, who is struggling in her postpartum convalescence and nursing a newborn child. He finds temptation in a neighbor's young daughter named Oume, and is persuaded by her grandfather to give Oiwa a "medicinal potion" — actually a poison — meant to disfigure her so that Iemon will divorce her. Oiwa drinks the potion and her face takes on a monstrous countenance. Soon after, she dies in an accident brought on by jealousy and rage. Her ghost relentlessly haunts Iemon, tracking him down in a hermitage at Hebiyama ("Snake Mountain") where he is taking refuge. He is finally slain by another rōnin helped by the sister of a servant he has murdered.

Design

In this scene, Oiwa's ghost returns to haunt and take revenge on Iemon, but the ghost is decapitated. Even so, her severed head, positioned eerily between the antagonists, still manipulates Iemon's companions into attacking him.

Obake-e (lit., "transformed thing," in this instance ghost prints: お化け絵) are relatively uncommon in Osaka printmaking, compared with Edo prints. Hokuei's diptych distills the essence of what kabuki audiences looked for in their kaidan mono: A mood of terror (note that the actors are set against a pitch-black sky), a gruesome stage prop (Oiwa's head), and an otherwise lack of contextual detail so as to concentrate on the figures and the otherwordly shinka (spirit flame: 神火), symbolic of a supernatural presence. Altogether, this is a fine ghost print by Hokuei.

****

Listed in:

1) Bosuton bijutsukan shozō Kamigata-e mokuroku, Kitagawa, Kansai daigaku, 2007, p. 99.

2) Ikeda Bunko, Kamigata yakusha-e shūsei (Collected Kamigata Actor Prints), vol. 3, Osaka, 2001, no 563.