Artist: Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳)

Print: An actor, possibly Sawamura Sōjūrō V as Shiragara Jūemon (百柄十石工門) wearing a skull and spider kimono - the inset in the upper left is Bandō Shūka I as Komurasaki (小紫)

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Dates: 1846 - 1848,created
Dimensions: 9.25 in,14.0 in,Overall dimensions
Medium: Japanese color woodblock print

Signed: Ichiyūsai Kuniyoshi ga
Artist's seal: kiri
Censors' seals: Muramatsu and Yoshimura

Related links: Waseda University;

Physical description:

This print was probably published by Ibaya Senzaburō based on the fact that its companion piece shows that house's mark.

The print has a 'brother', possibly the left of a diptych

This image of an actor standing in the center of the sheet, with a modest circular inset in the upper left, would be one of the most prosaic images in the Lyon Collection if it were not for the spectacular, fantastic design found on main figures robes. There is no beautiful landscape or interior setting surrounding this man, only the plain color of the paper with a hint of bit of sky across the top. Even that large, unprinted field is now soiled and distressed by years of casual handling, but oh that robe... that robe... What a masterpiece of invention and design.

The robe is filled with frightening and demonic images meant to infuse fear into most superstitious and humor into the most skeptical. The two most obvious elements are the black spiders with their webs covering the upper torso and the gong playing white-boned skeleton centered near the actor’s feet. And yet there is so much more. But let’s stay with the spiders first. These spiders are no ordinary spiders. There are three of them visible, composed of skulls, human skulls. The cephalothorax or what would pass for the head, is a large skull and the abdomen or body is made up of an even larger one. The spider on our left, the actor’s right side, appears to be spewing venom and even the venom is made up of skulls. There are necklace-like strings of skulls filling much of the space immediately below that.

Perhaps this is a veiled reference to the ancient tale of Yorimitsu (944-1021) and his men killing the monstrous ‘earth-spider’. After wounding it they dragged it out into the open air and cut off its head. As a result about 2,000 human skulls poured out of its body. Or, perhaps these spider/skulls are something different altogether.

The skeleton ‘musician’ is another matter. It appears to be banging on a mendicant priest’s gong, like the ones worn near the belly while wandering around through the countryside. This, too, would be related to another old tradition based on the story of the Zen priest Ikkyū (1394-1481) who wrote about and illustrated a tale of skeletons acting out their current state as though they were still alive.

And yet there is more. To the left of the skeleton with the mallet is the partially hidden, red, gaping maw of a monster, possibly a giant catfish, looking like the proverbial Gates of Hell. Below that is a one-eyed, creeping gando or lantern – an inanimate object come to life. Behind and above the skeleton is another ghoulish figure looking like a crazed woman whose face is mostly hidden from view, fortunately.

Such is the nature of this remarkable print. Click on the image and enlarge it so you can see clearly each of its horrifying details.