Kunichika (1835-1900) Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen, 1882.
This is a fine print, a triptych by Kunichika. The scene is from one of the many (probably terrible) melodramatic plays favoured by the kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro. Based on historic fact, the battles of Kawanakajima were fought in the Sengoku Period of Japan between Takeda Shingen of Kai Province and Uesugi Kenshin of Echigo Province in the plain of Kawanakajima, in the north of Shinano Province in the mid sixteenth century. The print has a pleasing decorative border of concentric red lines. There is (of course) more to these than mere decoration.
The Ichikawa Danjuro line of actors begins in the 1690’s with Ichikawa Danjuro I. It was Danjuro the first that came up with the actor crest, or mon, of three concentric squares. This mon is very common because of the simple fact that there were so many Ichikawa Danjuro actors – the actor Ichikawa Danjuro XII held the name until 2013!
The mon represents three rice measures called masu. A masu was originally a square wooden box used to measure rice in Japan during the feudal period. Masu existed in many sizes, typically covering the range from one ‘to’ to one ‘go’. Today masu are largely used for drinking sake, as the advent of modern rice cookers and a higher calorie diet in Japan has made them impractical for measuring portions of rice.
The mon is very visible whenever there is a Danjuro in a print – they were great self publicists, hugely successful and hugely wealthy… real pop stars of the Edo. The symbol was also a gift to woodblock artists, since the traditionally red, concentric squares were very striking motifs, as can be seen below.