Kanadehon Chushingura, popularly known as "The Revenge of the 47 Ronin", is the name of a drama that immortalized historic events from the early 18th century. The story became also one of the major themes of ukiyo-e - Japanese woodblock prints.
First Publication: April 2004
Latest Update: September 2013
In ukiyo-e printmaking, which followed the kabuki theater closely as one of its staple subjects, Chushingura was depicted in single sheet actor prints from the first decades of its production. At this point, Chushingura was still just one drama among many, receiving no special treatment to distinguish it from other plays.
There are prints of actors in Chushingura roles, for example, sprinkled among others by Shunsho and Buncho in the Ehon Butai Ogi of 1770, based on slightly earlier standard hosoban prints of the drama.
Shortly thereafter, however, this highly celebrated play took on a unique status as a theme for eleven sheet print sets, with one print devoted to each of its acts.
No other drama in the kabuki oeuvre has ever been accorded comparable treatment, or variety of depiction. Chushingura, as one of the best known plays, became a pop culture standard, from which artists could draw seemingly endless variations and nuances, mixing fact and fiction in varying amounts to create different shades of the legend.
In broad overview then, here are several of these Chushingura sets, described by general type, with mention of the artists who made them.
While being depicted in a variety of series formats, Chushingura remained a major source for standard kabuki prints until the demise of ukiyo-e at the beginning of the twentieth century.
"Standard" kabuki prints refers to those pieces that were made for an actual performance, to be sold as mementos during the play's run, and depicting actors, settings and props with an attempt to approximate, at least with accepted shorthand, how they appeared on the stage.
These prints closely followed periodic fads in style and format for actor prints, growing from hosoban to oban, and transitioning through variations in the Katsukawa and Utagawa school styles. Typically, as Chushingura was often shown in individual acts, these prints do not exist in series of eleven, though there are some sets of single sheets and polyptychs for full performances.
All of the Katsukawa and Utagawa School artists who regularly made actor prints as coverage for the theater designed prints for Chushingura at some time in their careers. Though few of these standard, "journalistic" pieces have been singled out as masterpieces, there are many striking and original works among them, and these served as the basis for many of the prints in series.
Initial series of Chushingura prints, such as those from the 1770s by Shunsho, follow the drama quite closely, selecting a highlight to represent each act. Significantly, however, Shunsho chose the chuban format, rather than hosoban, for his Chushingura series, emphasizing the difference between these sets and his actor work.
Though his series follow the action as it appears on the stage, he eschews the specifics of actors' facial features and placement for a stylish, elegant interaction between fashionable male and female types. These works remove the drama from the stage and place it squarely within the ideals of the floating world, in which heroes and heroines are young and beautiful, and love, not honor, becomes the foremost theme.
Other sets by Shunei and Shunko follow in Shunsho's path, but gradually return to some of the more martial aspects of the drama, while still in the chuban format. These works have the effect of mixing fiction (the various subplots of the drama) with a sense of reality, using non-theatrical types, but largely retaining simplified settings.
This movement towards giving the drama a life beyond the stage, and thus one seemingly mingled with the actual history of the 47 ronin, is accelerated by the use of Chushingura in perspective prints (uki-e), which become perhaps the most prevalent genre of Chushingura in series.
Chushingura was one of only a select few kabuki dramas that were taken up for representation in perspective prints (uki-e), and actually became the dominant subject for uki-e in the nineteenth century.
This special genre of prints, literally "floating pictures", emphasized depth in space using techniques influenced by Western perspective, and was often viewed through special lenses that enhanced its 3-D ("floating") effect.
Illustrations from the late eighteenth century suggest that children comprised at least part of the audience for uki-e, who for a small fee could view them at a festival or street show. Chushingura, as a familiar drama with a moral content, provided perfect subject matter for such a show, which likely involved narration along with picture viewing.
There are countless sets of Chushingura uki-e, and it seems most major nineteenth artists designed at least one, if not more, sets - or at least horizontal, framed print series influenced by uki-e.
These differ from standard depictions of the drama, and even early series, in bringing the story into well-developed "real world" settings, with architectural details and extensive landscapes, as well as figures who do not necessarily resemble actors (using actual women instead of onnagata, for example). In this transformation, the story of the drama, though largely fiction, comes to life as actual, not just staged, event, adding a sense of realism to the depiction.
There are notable Chushingura uki-e series by Masayoshi, Hokusai, Toyokuni I, Kuninao, Shunsen, Kunisada, Eisen and others. Important horizontal Chushingura sets, influenced by uki-e in their freedom from the stage, were made by Hokusai, Eisen, Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi and Sadahide.
Kabuki is an art that largely lives or dies by the interpretation of the individual actor, and so it is little surprise that some print designers created series that focused solely on the features and expression of the actor, with plain, colored grounds, or in fan shapes.
Most notable among these is Shunei's marvelous 1790s series of standing Chushingura actors against gray grounds, though Kunisada also produced a beautiful bust portrait set of Chushingura actors with a drip-pattern background in 1816.
Kunichika also created a striking set of Chushingura bust portraits against variously colored grounds in the 1860s, while Toyokuni I has several sets of Chushingura actor portraits, in fans and against blank grounds.
These yakusha-e series consist of virtuoso works, emphasizing the skill of the artist in capturing the fine points of an actor's expression with graceful lines and beautiful colors. With no distracting background or props, all attention is focused on the actor's face and costume, and their expressive qualities as rendered by the artist.
Because of these unique qualities and the care that went into these works, they stand as some of the highest artistic achievements among Chushingura depictions. They are simultaneously both thoroughly entrenched in the conventions of the theater, and free from the contingencies of any particular pose or performance, rather presenting the actor in his perfected, distilled essence.
The spirit of ukiyo-e from its inception tended towards playfulness with forms, and from the mid-eighteenth century particularly towards a contrast between canonical models and contemporary realities. Although Chushingura was not a classical work, the status it had achieved in the popular imagination made it a target for clever comparisons and reductive parodies.
One of the first - and probably the finest - "parody" series of Chushingura was designed by Utamaro, an artist who made very few kabuki prints, but seemed unable to resist trying his hand at the subject, however obliquely. His scenes, taken mostly from the Yoshiwara brothels, cleverly parallel action from the drama, though in a humorously debased fashion.
Later sets by both Utamaro and his followers tended to emphasize not parallel action, but strikingly beautiful female figures, linked with various actions in the drama either by pose or thematically.
Similar works can be found in the nineteenth century by Eizan and Kunisada, among others, who also pair portraits of female beauties and famous courtesans with particular scenes from the drama, but now actually depict the scene to be compared in clouds or circular cartouches.
Though this could be read as a loss of subtlety, it was in part necessitated by the need to make more abstruse connections, in order to be at all original in connecting the drama to current forms in the floating world.
An altogether different genre of play can be seen in the experiments of Kuniyoshi and his school in "play pictures" (asobi-e), such as the set of Chushingura figures as lanterns, perhaps necessitated by kabuki print censorship in the 1840s.
One imaginative variation on the 11 sheet series was a combination form that worked highlights from each of the acts into a continuous panorama, in which chronologically distinct moments from the play appear simultaneously.
Toyokuni I created a remarkable five sheet composition of this sort in the early ninetenth century, which marvelously leads the viewer's eye through architecture, road, and natural landscape from one scene to the next. His clever use of architectural elements to divide scenes was picked up by Kunisada, among others, in similar split-scene Chushingura images, which show interior and exterior action simultaneously.
Kunisada also created a triptych with 11 differently shaped and colored cartouches, each containing a scene from the acts of the drama.
While these works by no means constitute a major genre of Chushingura works, they are nonetheless interesting and original pieces whose compositions added to the store of possibilities for Chushingura depiction.
The trend of creating sets of 47 (or more) Chushingura prints, one for each hero in the drama, was initiated by Kuniyoshi in his "Seichu gishi den" of 1847-8. This series aimed to be more historically factual and complete than those based on the drama, each print with a written biography of a hero and his portrait in action, usually at the scene of the night attack.
In terms of pop culture, such series could be compared in function to sets of trading cards, though the size and artistry of their design obviously raises them to another level artistically.
In particular, Kuniyoshi approached the biography series as an opportunity to experiment with studies of figures in action, each isolated against a blank ground. Examination of the full set reveals a remarkable variety, with heroes bending, crouching, ducking, twisting, charging, slashing, thrusting, stiffening, posing triumphantly, leaning forward and falling back with almost no repetition among the 51 prints.
Later students seem to have copied Kuniyoshi's set as much to ride the coattails of his commercial success as to learn his techniques for counterpoising and balancing figures in action.
There are original and notable sets of the heroes by Yoshitoshi and Kyosai as well, however. Kuniyoshi, moreover, applied the "biography" technique to other themes, as well as to additional Chushingura sets, one with the women of the story, others with heroes in action in fuller settings with a different color palette.
Interesting and attractive as these prints are, the brilliance of his initial 1847-8 Chushingura series could never quite be repeated.
Although not technically "series" prints, it is nonetheless fitting to conclude this discussion of Chushingura sets with mention of some of the multi-sheet works on the 46 ronin story that attempted to be historically accurate.
For the movement in Chushingura depiction from standard kabuki sheets through the series works, and from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries, has tended to be one towards an increasing sense of realism, as well as increasing discrimination about what is factual, at least in the progressive works.
The biography series, though stilted towards effusive praise of the heroes, were yet a further advance on the sense of realism effected by the use of Chushingura in uki-e.
Historical warrior print triptychs, typically depicting the night attack or its aftermath, aimed at bringing the stirring action and magnificence of this event to life. Typically these works focus on mass group scenes, with the ronin in their striking black and white costume of revenge, either scaling the gate of Kira's mansion, fighting in the garden, or gathering on Ryogoku Bridge when the deed was done.
Although many of the aspects of depiction are borrowed from works based on the theater, gone is any sense that one is watching a secondhand drama. Rather it is the moving story of the 46 ronin themselves that is brought directly to the viewer's gaze in these triptychs, with all the weight and seriousness of historical truth.
Author: Dan McKee