Kanadehon chûshingura (Copybook of the Treasury of Loyal Retainers; often called simply "The Forty-seven Rônin": 假名手本忠臣蔵) is the most famous of all Japanese tales of honor and revenge, It has been a perennial favorite in the puppet and kabuki theaters since its premiere in 1748, and is still performed today. This masterpiece was based on actual events from 1703, when former retainers of Asano Naganori, the daimyô (lord) of Akô, murdered Lord Kira Yoshinaka twenty-one months after he had insulted their lord (he was angered by Asano's refusal to pay him a bribe) and goaded him into drawing his sword within a residence belonging the the shogun Tsunayoshi. This mandated Asano's seppuku (ritual suicide, "incision of the abdomen": 切腹), leading to a slowly nurtured vendetta managed brilliantly by Asano's retainer Ônishi Kuranosuke. In the theatrical version, the names were changed to Enya Hangan, the malicious Kô no Moronao, and the heroic Ôboshi Yuranosuke. Numerous revivals and adaptations of the play were produced; the performance connected with Hirosada's design shown here was called Iroha kana shijûshichibon ("Forty-seven readings of the Japanese syllabary"), with the number "forty-seven" obviously referring to the rônin.
At least six designs are known from this series, called Chûretsu gishiden ("Tales of unswerving loyalty of the righteous retainers"). The title was an example of the guarded approach to Osaka printmaking followed the Tenpô Reforms (Tenpô kaikaku), edicts that in 7/1842 banned actor prints in Osaka, virtually halting print production in Kamigata for five years. The didactic or moralizing titles were used to endow a print with a loftier purpose than portraying "mere" actors, but it was a transparent ruse that fooled no one—it simply provided publishers with a portal to issue actor prints while compying with the letter of the law. A gradual weakening of enforcement ensued despite reiterations in 1844 and 1845 by the government of its intention to continue the reforms, and, by 1847, relatively normal print production had resumed, although printmakers played their cards close to their vests for nearly a decade afterwards.
The image shown at the top left is the earliest of the two chûban-size impressions. From a deluxe edition, it includes nunomezuri (fabric printing: 布目摺), as evidenced by fine, closely spaced, slightly irregular, cross-hatched lines in the two cartouches and on the black and white outer robe patterned with Kuranosuke's trademark tomoe (double comma: 巴) crest and saw-tooth motif.
Perhaps prodded by the publishers who employed them, or motivated by their own sense of technical prowess, printmakers were continually striving for new effects. In a later standard-edition chûban-size impression (middle image above), the background was printed with a mottled gray ground suggesting a night sky. The textured printing is uncommon, known by only a small handful of other kamigata-e. It appears that a pale brown was printed first, which was then overlaid with a dark textured gray.
The ôban-size deluxe impression comes from an apparently unrecorded (we have never seen another copy) recut copy that was possibly intended to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Ebizô's performance as Ôboshi Yuranosuke. The artist was Nobukata (dates unknown to us). The larger inscription on the left indicates that this design was presented in a dedication ceremony to the leader of the Akebono Group. The smaller script identifies the block cutter as chôshô (or horishô = block cutter) Yamaguchi Seibidô. His seal (reading "Yamaguchi kô") can also be found in the lower right margin.
Note: Although these prints were not, of course, published as a set, we have combined them to form a unique group documenting an unusual production history for one of Hirosada's early post-Tenpô designs.
摺り： (左）最高デラックス布目摺り、（中）最高の摺り、（右）最高デラックス布目摺り 保存状態： (左）色彩最上、状態（裏打ちあり、額部に薄い点々あり、余白部分微かに色落ち）（中）色彩最上、状態良好（裏打ちなし、朱色着衣にシミ、上部余白部分に補修済みの虫穴あり、薄く擦れ跡。）(右）色彩最上、状態良好（横向きに薄く折り跡あり、下端部に沿い汚れ少々あり。）
References: WAS-VI, no. 53; IKB-I, no. 2-496; KNP-6, p. 512; NKE, p. 271
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