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The actor Sakata Hangoro III as the Villain Fujikawa Mizuemon in the kabuki play The Iris Soga of the Bunroku Era (Hana-ayame Bunroku Soga)

The actor Sakata Hangoro III as the Villain Fujikawa Mizuemon in the kabuki play The Iris Soga of the Bunroku Era (Hana-ayame Bunroku Soga)
Woodblock print with dark silver mica ground, signed Toshusai Sharaku ga, published by Tsutaya Juzaburo (Koshodo), 5th month 1794
Vertical oban: 14 3/8 x 9 7/8 in. (36.5 x 25.1 cm.)

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Lot Essay

Sharaku captures a moment in the drama when the corrupt Mizuemon is in the process of rolling up his sleeves to use his sword against one of three sons avenging the death of their father, who was killed by Mizuemon. His glare and grimace suggest he will be the victor. The play by Matsui Yusuke is a complicated mix of circumstances surrounding a real-life 1701 murder and the twelfth-century revenge story of the Soga brothers, as the play title suggests. In black ink in the upper right and to the right of the signature in the lower left an owner of the print has inscribed the actor’s name and cyclical date corresponding to the performance of the play at the Miyako Theater, Edo, in the fifth lunar month of 1794. The mystery of who Sharaku was and why his brilliant actor images span only one year remains unsolved.
Sakata Hangoro (1756–1795) was a specialist in villain and tough-guy roles. While easily identified from this likeness, his personal crest adorns the sleeves of his robe. The ground of thick, dark mica is indicative of luxury production by the publisher, Tsutaya Juzaburo, who was the promoter genius behind so many great artists of the late eighteenth century, among them Utamaro, Choki, Kitao Masanobu and Kiyonaga. The seal of a clump of ivy under Mount Fuji in the lower left of this image refers to the publisher’s establishment, Tsutaya, House of the Ivy. Tsutaya composed poetry with other sophisticates in the Yoshiwara Circle under the name Tsuta no Karamaru, Entwined in the Ivy.
Tsutaya’s collaboration with Sharaku took place in ten months in 1794, resulting in twenty-eight actor close-ups of astonishing boldness and invention. They are close-ups in the modern sense, using a raised eyebrow, a furrowed brow, single prop or simple gesture to snap the scene. Debate continues on whether the existence of so few of the actor likenesses is because they were unpopular for their frankness or whether Tsutaya found their production too expensive. A reasonable theory proposed by Asano Shugo is that Tsutaya only released small editions on account of their fine printing, coloring and embellishments in the manner of deluxe commissions of surimono and poetry albums. At present, under fifty prints of the edition of Hangoro as Mizuemon are known.

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