I ran across this particular print in a lot of Japanese prints at an auction at I.M. Chait. It was quite different from most of the other prints that one sees come up for auction (Hiroshige re-prints, Toyokuni III actor prints, etc.). I decided to do a bit of investigation.
Based upon the style of the lines (very calligraphic in style), limited color palette, and lack of censor seal I was ready to date this print to the mid-1700s. To start, the print is done in a benizuri style (pink and green), this places the print squarely in the 1740s-1750s. The signature appears to be that of Torii Kiyomasu and given the time frame that would likely make it Torii Kiyomasu II.
The publisher’s seal is that of Maruya Kohei, who produced prints from 1747 to 1783 – and this particular seal was in use from 1750 – 1754. Kohei produced many actor prints including those of Kiyomasu II. This gives us a very specific time frame to look at.
As to identifying the print itself it’s obviously an actor print. The crests on the characters are quite large – there are two Ichikawa actors and one whose crest matches the Nakamura acting family. Reading the name next to the Nakamura actor reveals that it is Nakamura Denkurô (and given the time frame, Denkurô II would make the most sense). Reading the name next to the other actor reveals it to be Ichikawa Danjûrô (and given the time frame, Danjûrô IV would make the most sense).
As to the subject matter, the inclusion of two nearly-identical-looking actors tends to push for this being a Sogamono (a play about the Soga brothers). The large flaming deity I recognized from other prints as Fudō. Looking for a play that features both the Soga brother and the deity Fudō brings up the play Tsuwamono kongen Soga, originally played by Ichikawa Danjūrō I. The Danjuro line was frequently tied with Fudō and this particular play is part of their repertoire.
As to the exact date of the play, that’s not clear. There were a ton of Soga brothers plays (a new one each January) and a combined force of two Ichikawa actors and a Nakamura actor happened frequently. Given the publisher seal dates and the dates in which those actors were active, it would make sense if this print was from late 1754 or early 1755 (Ichikawa Danjûrô IV didn’t taken on his name until 1754, giving a rather precise dating).
I found some similar prints in the MFA’s collection as well:
The first two prints are other actor prints by Kiyonobu II in 1755 in a very similar style. The first print was even done by the same publisher and the second depicts a style closer to the one found in this print. The final print is an earlier one done by Kiyonobu I depicting Fudō.
And another print in the British Museum’s collection:
This one uses the same color scheme and has the same publisher’s seal, while also depicting an Ichikawa actor (in this case, Ichikawa Ebizo).
It’s unfortunate that the print is quite faded and mold-damaged, it’d certainly be a nice addition to any collection, otherwise.
- Marks, Andreas. Publishers of Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Compendium.
- Hirose, Self. Japanese Art Signatures.
- Clark, Timothy. The Actor’s Image.
- Kabuki 21.
Update October 7, 2011: I’ve discovered another copy of this print at the Tokyo National Museum.
Finding this print yields a few more details that I had missed before: To start, the print is by Torii Kiyomasu II not Torii Kiyonobu II, I mis-read the last Kanji character.
Additionally it provides some detail as to where the scene takes place: At the Meguro Fudo Temple, which is fitting considering that this print features Fudō himself.
As far as I know the dates and other details I figured out are correct.