The actors Nakamura Nakazō, Ichikawa Sadanji, Ichikawa Danjūrō, Onoe Kikugorō and Nakamura Sōjūrō as Ōboshi Yuranosuke (in the play Kanadehon Chūshingura)

Japanese Color Woodblock Print 

The actors Nakamura Nakazō, Ichikawa Sadanji, Ichikawa Danjūrō, Onoe Kikugorō

and Nakamura Sōjūrō as Ōboshi Yuranosuke

(in the play Kanadehon Chūshingura)

by Toyohara Chikayoshi, 1878

IHL Cat. #457

About This Print

Five actors, from left to right, Nakamura Nakazō III 中村 仲蔵, Ichikawa Sadanji 市川 左団次, Ichikawa Danjūrō IX 市川 団十郎, Onoe Kikugorō V 尾上 菊五郎 and Nakamura Sōjūrō 中村 宗十郎 in the role of Ōboshi Yuranosuke 大星 由良之助, the leader of the 47 rōnin, from the play, Kanadehon Chūshingura.  While undated, this print corresponds to a particular performance in November 1878 at the Shintomi Theater, with the leading roles being rotated each day among different actors.  In discussing the print Competing for the Role of Ōboshi, 1878 by Morikawa Chikashige, which shows the same five actors engaging in a neck-pulling contest (see image below), Foxwell notes that “The image tantalizes fans with the notion that the actors deliberately competed with each other to give the best performance of the role.”1  The looks and postures of these same actors in this collection's print also suggests a competition.  Danjūrō, of course, has the center location in this print, reserved for the biggest name actor, and his drawn dagger is quite menacing.

Competing for the Role of Ōboshi, 1878 by Morikawa Chikashige

The "dog-toothed" pattern surrounding the print and the register panel, is taken from the black-and-white cloak design popular in 19th-century representations of the rōnin which "symbolized...their unwavering devotion both by day and by night."2

To read more about the representations of Chūshingura in woodblock prints see the article on this site Chūshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers) in Woodblock Prints.

1 “The Double Identity of Chushingura: Theater and History in Nineteenth-Century Prints" by Chelsea Foxwell from Impressions 26, 2004, p. 38.
2 Chushingura and the Floating World, David Bell, Japan Library, 2001, p. 30.

November 1878 Performance of Kanadehon Chūshingura

Source: “The Double Identity of Chushingura: Theater and History in Nineteenth-Century Prints" by Chelsea Foxwell from Impressions 26, 2004, p. 38.
"Prints for a November 1878 run of Kanadehon chūshingura at the Shintomi Theater in Tokyo represent the theater at the height of its success in a new location.  The eleventh month marked the start of the kabuki season, when the entire company was introduced (kao-mise, literally “showing the face”) in anticipation of the performances that would run through the ninth month of the following year.  The placement of Kanadehon chūshingura in the November lineup suggests that an all-star performance of the classic play was conceived as a strategy for augmenting the popularity of the theater.  Furthermore, the 1878 Shintomi performance rotated different actors for the major roles on different days.  While kabuki had a long tradition of starring one actor in multiple roles, this extraordinary variant on the tradition demanded that multiple actors be prepared to play at least two big roles." 

The Play

Source: Chūshingura On Stage And In Print
The play Kanadehon Chūshingura is based on the "...Akō Incident of 1701-03, when forty-six rōnin were executed by seppuku for having avenged the death of their lord, Asano Takumi-no-kami, by killing his enemy Kira Kozuke-no-suke after 22 months of plotting. In the ensuing three centuries, their story has been retold endlessly, constantly expanded and embellished, to become Japan’s “national legend.”

The single most crucial event in this process of embellishment occurred in the autumn of 1748, almost a half-century after the initial incident, when a puppet play entitled Kanadehon Chūshingura (translated into English by Donald Keene as “The Treasury of Loyal Retainers”) was staged in Osaka. It was an instant success, and within months the play had become a hit on the kabuki stage as well. Chūshingura has remained the most frequently performed play in the repertoire of both those genres of traditional Japanese theater throughout the intervening two and a half centuries."

Kanadehon Chūshingura in Color Woodblock Prints
Source: Chūshingura On Stage And In Print
"The most impressive legacy of Kanadehon Chūshingura in print is the large number of color woodblock prints that were made primarily to advertise upcoming performances by showing the major actors in well-known scenes, but which also extended into a variety of peripheral genres as well. In general, only a limited number of dramatic high points were selected for illustration, so that the same scenes were depicted over and over. 

Many kabuki prints...were issued in multiples of two (diptychs) and three (triptychs). This was a general tendency in late Edo prints, and was done in part to overcome the size limitations of the printing blocks, which could not exceed the normal dimensions of the wild cherry tree from which they were made. The multi-sheet formats also offered the possibility, however, of  enjoying each single sheet separately. Many of these works can thus be visually apprehended in two different ways, either as a multi-sheet unit showing actors interacting with one another, or as single portraits of specific actors.

The majority of kabuki prints depicting Kanadehon Chūshingura were intended for a specific performance, which can be identified by the crests of the actors playing particular roles. They served in this way as both advertisements and documents of one-time performances, and were rarely reprinted, so that the total number of any one print probably ran from one hundred to several hundred copies.

The total variety of different Chūshingura prints, however, was very large, particularly if we include the many plays that were derivative of Kanadehon Chūshingura, a category known as kakikae, or “re-writes.” In addition, some prints depicted not a particular performance, but a generic Chūshingura scene, sometimes with specific actors, sometimes not even related to the kabuki stage but rather illustrating the jōruri narrative. Of a total of some 800 Chūshingura-related prints in the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum at Waseda, 45 percent show specific performances of Kanadehon Chūshingura, 18 percent depict kakikae performances, and 37 percent are of a generic or miscellaneous type.

The total number of different Chūshingura prints ever issued was long thought to be in the range of 1500-2000, but in the preparation of a complete catalog of such prints that is soon to be published by Akō City, it has been discovered that the actual number is closer to 5000, constituting a huge body of visual material on this single play and its many spin-offs."

The Actors Pictured

For background on the actors Nakamura Nakazō III, Ichikawa Sadanji, Ichikawa Danjūrō IX, Onoe Kikugorō and Nakamura Sōjūrō see their respective entries in the article The Kabuki Actor on this site.

Print Details

 IHL Catalog  #457
 Title (Description)  The actors Nakamura Nakazō III, Ichikawa Sadanji, Ichikawa Danjūrō IX, Onoe Kikugorō V and Nakamura Sōjūrō in the role of Yuranosuke in the play Kanadehon Chūshingura
 Artist  Toyohara Chikayoshi (fl. 1870s-1880s)
 Signature  Toyohara Chikayoshi hitsu with toshidama seal
 Seal  toshidama
 Publication Date  1878
Top: Dai 大 [Marks 08-102; publisher ref. 034]

Left cartouche: 出版人 shuppanjin (publisher) 山村金三良 Yamamura Kinzaburō [Marks: similar to 26-157; publisher ref. 034] followed by publisher's address

Right cartouche: 画工 (artist) 鈴木さと Suzuki Sato* followed by artist's address.
* given name of Toyohara Chikayoshi
Hori Kichi 彫吉
 Impression  excellent
 Colors  excellent
 Condition good - minor margin trimming; lightly backed; printers marks within image
 Genre  ukiyo-e; nigao-e; yakusha-e
 Format  vertical oban triptych
 H x W Paper
 14 x 9 in. (35.6 x 22.9 cm) each sheet
 Collections This Print