Toyokuni III Utagawa, Kawarazaki Gonjuro, Five Festivals


Artist: Toyokuni III Utagawa (1786-1865)
Title: Kawarazaki Gonjuro as Noborikoi no Shokichi
Series: Handsome Street Knights for the Five Festivals
Publisher: Ebisuya Shoshichi
Date: 1863
Size: 24.4 x 36.2 cm

Original Japanese woodblock print.

During the Edo Period, the samurai class had yet to adjust to the daily routine of peacetime and grew frustrated with the loss of status and usefulness. Bored and idle, they frequently caused trouble in towns and were involved in street fights and robbery. At the same time, the commoner otokodate (street knights) were gaining confidence in their strength among the merchants and they were employed by clerks, shopkeepers, innkeepers, and artisans for protection. The samurai and the otokodate were thus natural rivals, and as each group banded together into teams under leaders, fierce and bloody clashes broke out frequently.

Otokodate were also icons of fashion and followed the latest trends. In this series, Toyokuni III compares famous kabuki actors of the day with legendary otokodate. Their clothes are adorned with rich patterns referring to traditional Japanese festivals and they carry swords and shakuhachi, a flute that was often associated with street knights and a symbol of defiance towards authorities and the government.

Kawarazaki Gonjuro is seen wearing a kimono with symbols for Boys' Festival. Originally celebrated in the house of warriors, Boys' Day (Tango no Sekku) is dedicated to wishes of health and happiness for boys. Today it is more universally known as Children’s Day (Kodomo no Hi) and is celebrated on May 5th every year. Koinobori (carp streamers) would be flown on this day. Carps are considered to be the most spirited fish, so full of energy and power that it can fight their way up swift-running streams and cascades.

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 FormatOban (Vertical)
ArtistToyokuni III Utagawa (Kunisada I) (1786 - 1864)
SubjectSamurai & Male, Kabuki Theatre, Kimono Design
Size24.4 x 36.2 cm
Condition ReportTrimmed.
publisherEbisuya Shoshichi:1846-1883