Toshidama… A Print per Day – Kunichika


Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900)  Flowers of Edo: A Series of Chivalrous Men (Edo no hana Isami zoroi): Ichikawa Kodanji IV, 1865.

What a serious fellow this is… it’s a portrait of a kabuki actor, Ichikawa Kodanji IV. Kodanji was a tragic figure who might be said to have died for his art. He actually died in 1866, a year after this portrait was published, a man who had become the victim (some would say,) of the flailing edicts of the corrupt, weakened and doomed Tokugawa Shogunate. Kodanji became part of the great Ichikawa dynasty of kabuki actors, mentored by none other than Ichikawa Danjuro the VII. But whilst he was gifted and passionate, he was not cut out for the thrusting and demanding world of the kabuki theatre and the dog days of the Shogunate.

Masakatsu Gunji in  Tokugawa Japan, (University of Tôkyô Press,March 23, 1992) has this to say about the career of Kodanji IV:

Ichikawa Kodanji IV was the son of a vendor of hinawa (the match cord used for lighting pipe tobacco)-an occupation held in low esteem even in theater society. Once, brutally kicked by a superior, young Kodanji fell headlong from a building’s second story and lost consciousness. After a wretched childhood in Edo, Kodanji pursued his artistic apprenticeship during an adolescence in the Kyôto-Ôsaka region. As a full-fledged actor, during the mid-1800s he took back with him to the Edo troupes the realism and stylization of the western theater style. He was not favored by nature with an attractive physical appearance, but the feverish intensity of his art in the title roles of Chijimiya Shinsuke, Ikake Matsu, or Sakura Sôgo exceedingly true to life. In 1866, during his performance in “Ikake Matsu”, a notice from the office of the Edo magistrate decreed: “During recent years, dramas depicting current life have probed too far into human feelings. Since this tendency is detrimental to the manners of society, plays should reflect human feelings as little as possible.” At this, Kodanji could only grieve: he had no way to express his resentment, nor any choice but to give up acting. The very next day his health began a rapid decline; death followed shortly at age fifty-five, at the very pinnacle of his career.

How extraordinary that a magistrate should decree that ‘plays should reflect human feelings as little as possible’. Of course, kabuki is the most melodramatic and emotive of all theatre forms… it would be, as Kodanji saw it, impossible to perform in any other way. He is perhaps best remembered for his portrayal of Danshichi in, A Mirror of the Chivalrous Commoner and the Iris Leaves (Natsu Matsuri Naniwa Kagami), illustrated below.


Kunisada (1786-1865) Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Danshichi




About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
This entry was posted in Ichikawa Kodanji, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Meiji Art, Tattoo Art, Tokugawa Clan, Toshidama Gallery. and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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