Toyokuni III Utagawa, Kabuki Play, The Battles of Coxinga


Artist: Toyokuni III Utagawa (1786-1865)
Title: Kabuki play, The Battles of Coxinga
Publisher: Josen
Date: 1847-1852
Size: (L) 25.1 x 35.6 (C) 25.2 x 35.6 (R) 24.9 x 35.7 cm

Original Japanese woodblock print.

Japanese kabuki theatre started out as a type of dance and evolved into a theatre play, where in order to make a more dramatic and memorable performance the actors wear decorative costumes and apply make-up. Thus, Japanese kabuki is a type of stylised dance-drama.
Surprisingly, it all started with Izumo no Okuni, a woman who began performing a special her own style of dance. Then, kabuki adopted her moves and both male and female artists performed it skillfully. However, in 1629, the government banned women from the theatre as it started attracting bad crowds.


The Battles of Coxinga is the most popular play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, first staged in 1715 in Osaka. The play is loosely based on the story of the historical figure Coxinga, a Chinese Ming loyalist who fought the Qing conquest of China in the 17th century.


Three actors, one of them onnagata (young male kabuki actor performing the role of a woman), pictured in the scene wear elaborately patterned garments. Behind, a dynamic image of heavy sea and rocks stands out from the rest of a background.

Toyokuni III Utagawa (Kunisada I) (1786 - 1864)

Kunisada I Utagawa was a prolific woodblock print artist mostly known for his pictures of beautiful women (bijinga) and kabuki actors prints (yakusha-e). Born in Edo (today’s Tokyo), he became a pupil of Toyokuni I Utagawa (1769-1825) at the age of 15 and would later adopt his name in the traditional Japanese manner, becoming Toyokuni III and continuing the development of the Utagawa art school.

Kunisada’s pictures reflect the culture of Japan in the years leading up to the country’s opening to the West. His first book illustrations were published in 1807 and his first actor portrait the following year. Alongside theatrical scenes and courtesans, yakusha-e was his preferred genre amidst all his popular and extensive output. As he painted a large number of these, continuing the stout realism of his teacher, he acquired the nickname ‘Yakusha-e no Kunisada’ – Kunisada, the actor painter. In his numerous bijinga he clung to the ideal of beauty prevalent at the time. Most of the women portrayed were courtesans from Yoshiwara, the regulated red-light district of the city.

In 1820s Kunisada joined author Ryutei Tanehiko (1783-1842) to work on illustrating a series of books based on the classical novel ‘The Tale of Genji’, the reinterpreted story having been relocated from the old capital of Kyoto to the new audience in Edo. The work started a new ukiyo-e genre, genji-e, and proved an overnight success, becoming the first Japanese publication to sell over 10,000 copies, a record which stood for many years.

Kunisada gave his audience an escape from the restrictions of their ordinary lives and his designs, with their optimism and energy, still have the capacity today to attract and entertain. Notable students of Kunisada included Kunichika Toyohara, Sadahide Utagawa and Kunisada II Utagawa.

More Information
Print FormatTriptych
ArtistToyokuni III Utagawa (Kunisada I) (1786 - 1864)
SubjectSamurai & Male, Male & Female, Kabuki Theatre
Size(L) 25.1 x 35.6 (C) 25.2 x 35.6 (R) 24.9 x 35.7 cm
Condition ReportWormholes. Vertical centrefold.