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Sawamura Sōjūrō III (沢村宗十郎) as Satsuma Gengobei (薩摩源五兵衛), ca. 1801

Identifier: 1798 Toyokuni sawamuro sojuro iii

According to the Herwigs in their Heroes of the Kabuki Stage "The text above, reserved in white, presents lines from the play written in calligraphy by the wife of Sōjūrō."

In the notes to the Kodansha volume on the Japanese print collection in the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Berlin it says: "This portrayal of Satsuma Gengobei, the main character of the play Godairiki Koi no Füjime (The Lovers' Vow to Acala [God of Fire]), is assumed to have been produced in memory of Sawamura Sōjūrō III, who died at the age of forty-nine on 27th March, 1801 (Kyōwa 1). A fiery disposition seems to lurk behind the gentle, handsome features."

Toyokuni I came to prominence in Edo (now Tokyo) printmaking in the 1790's with his actor portraits. Influenced by the innovative work of his contemporaries Utamaro (in this exhibition) and Sharaku (active 1794-95) who pioneered the bust-length portrait (ōkubi-e), he designed powerful full-figure and half-length actor prints and established his own style that led the Utagawa school of artists well into the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Toyokuni also initiated the practice of depicting actors in their private lives, behind the scenes which held enormous appeal for Edo kabuki fans. Capitalizing on his own success, by 1817 the artist authored and illustrated a how-to book on his methods, Yakusha nigao haya geiko
[Quick Instruction in the Drawing of Actor Likenesses].

The actor portrayed in this striking bust-length view (ōkubi-e) is Sawamura Sōjurō III (1753-1801) in one of his best roles, the master-less samurai Satsuma Gengobei in the play Godairiki koi no fūjime [Five Great Strengths that Seal Love] . This play full of intrigue, disguise, and deception, as well of love and revenge, is based on the infamous “five murders at Sonezaki” incident that occurred in 1737 and debuted as a New Year’s performance at Edo’s Miyako Theater in 1795. The color woodcut was first released soon afterward, but then re-issued upon the actor’s death. This second version added calligraphy by Sōjurō III’s widow quoting lines from the play that allude to the ephemeral nature of the kabuki world.

There are other copies of this print in major museum collections. One is in the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Berlin and another is in the Musée Guimet in Paris.

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