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Utamaro print showing


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Jukôdô Yoshikuni (壽好堂芳國)


Kunihiro 1821Jukôdô Yoshikuni (壽好堂芳國), active c. 1813-32, was a pupil of Kyôgadô [Gôgadô] Ashikuni (狂画堂芦國). An important artist of the 1810s-20s in Osaka, he designed many prints portraying not only star actors from the main theaters but also lesser-known performers from the middle theaters. Unusual for a leading artist, Yoshikuni produced portraits of Nakamura Tsrusuke I (the future Utaemon IV) early in his kabuki career and years before it became clear the actor would succeed the great Nakamura Utaemon III. Yoshikuni also engaged in a wide range of collaborations (gassaku, 合作)) with other artists, including Ashikuni, Ashiyuki, Hikokuni, Kunihiro, Shibakuni, and Tamikuni.

Many print artists composed verses as contributors to poetry anthologies or poems on prints, either individually or as members of poetry clubs (renchû, 連中). Yoshikuni was among the more accomplished poets, heading the Jukôdô-sha print and poetry circle and contributing poems to surimono (pirvately issued and distributed prints, 摺物). He was also a highly skilled puppet-theater-style chanter (Bunraku-tayû: 文楽太夫).

Yoshikuni often featured the superstar Nakamura Utaemon III while virtually ignoring Arashi Kitsusaburo II (later Rikan II). In the early portraits of Utaemon, Yoshikuni tended to render the nigao (facial likeness, 似顔) in a manner derived from Utagawa school of actor portraits, although there is some softening of the nose and chin, and less extreme bulging of the eyes.

Beginning in the next decade, the nigao shifted, inconsistently at first, toward the softer Kamigata (Osaka-Kyoto) manner. One of Yoshikuni's more dramatic portrayals from this time (9/1820) depicts Utaemon III in the role of Katô Masakiyo (加藤正清) from the play Hachijin shugo no honjô (Eight battle arrays to protect Honjô Castle: 八陣守護城), Kado Theater, Osaka (see image above). The showy costume was typical of the aragoto style (rough stuff, 荒事) of playwriting and acting typical of Edo kabuki, which Utaemon III presented to great effect both in Osaka and during his sojourns in Edo. This visually compelling design has Utaemon, in red-face makeup (akazura, 赤面), wearing black billowing formal robes (kamishimo, 裃) — all set against a pale green background.

Katô Masakiyo was the theatrical stand-in for the historical Katô Kiyomasa (1562-1611), the son of a blacksmith who became legendary for his ferocity in battle, winning respect and influence from his mid-twenties until his death. Nicknamed the "demon general" (kishôkan), he commanded the second division in the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi's first Korean invasion of 1592. Kiyomasa led troops in Korea again in 1597, but was recalled the next year following Hideyoshi's death. Although he allied himself with Tokugawa Ieyasu — one of Hideyoshi's generals and the eventual founder of the hereditary dynasty of Tokugawa shoguns — he ran afoul of Ieyasu after opposing a plan to murder Hideyoshi's son, Hideyori. Kiyomasa's death in 1611 was suspicious, possibly the result of poisoning on orders from Ieyasu.

Kiyomasa's (Masakiyo's) theatrical tale takes an ominous turn when circumstances force him to meet with Kitabatake (a theatrical stand-in for Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose direct portrayal in theater or literature was banned by the shogunate). Kitabatake gives Masakiyo a poisoned cup of saké, which he drinks, knowing it will be fatal. He nevertheless musters the courage and stamina to stay alive for months to protect his young lord until he finally succumbs to the deadly brew. For more about this print, see my text at Masakiyo.

In 6/1828 Yoshikuni designed a diptych for the play Ono no Tofû aoyagi suzuri (Ono no Tofû, the inkstone, and the green willow tree: 小野道風青柳硯) staged at the Inaba Theater in Kyoto. On the right is Kataoka Ichizō I as Tokko no Daroku and on the left, Sawamura Gennosuke II as Ono no Tofu.

Yoshikuni’s diptych combines vestiges of early Kamigata portraiture with the greater fluidity of the later ōban style. The theatrical tale offers a fanciful retelling of events involving the legendary calligrapher Ono no Tôfû [Michikaze] (894-966: 小野の道風) during the reign of the Emperor Yôzei (868-944). The historical Tôfû, grandson of a courtier-poet, Ono no Takamura, was a government official, poet, and calligrapher. In the latter capacity, he served three emperors and is considered one of the Sanseki (Three Brush Traces: 三跡), Japan's three greatest calligraphers. In Japanese legend and art, Tôfû is particularly well known as the figure who takes inspiration from a frog who attempted seven times to leap from a pond to an overhanging willow branch until finally reaching his perch on his eighth attempt. Likewise, Tôfû had tried seven times to win a higher post in the imperial court, and so he took the frog's perseverence as a sign that he, too, should try yet another time, for which he was rewarded. In this particular scene, Daroku is an ally of Tachibana Hayanari, an enemy of the emperor, who plots to take over the country. The two fight and Tôfû tosses Daroku into the pond. However, in the end, Daroku and Tôfû become allies and help to foil the conspiracy.

For a bit more about this tale, see my text at Sadaharu. For another design by Yoshikuni, see collaborative prints (gassaku).

Yoshikuni's names/signatures/seals

Takagi or Takaki (高城)
Kô (高)
Toyokawa (豊川); Jukô (壽公 and 壽好) see "Toyokawa Yoshikuni" signature at top right with "Yoshi" seal (芳)

Art names (geimei):
Ashimaru (芦丸) earlier geimei until 3/1816
Yoshikuni (芳國); also used よし國 (see second part of signature above right)

Art pseudonyms ():
Jukôdô (壽好堂)
Kôjôdô (岡丈堂)

Pupils of Yoshikuni (listed alphabetically)

Chikakuni (千歌國 and 千哥國) act. c. 1821-23
Hidekuni (英國) act. c. 1827
Kiyokuni (清國) act. c. 1827
Jukôdô Masakuni (壽鶴堂升國) act. c. 1823
Toshikuni (年國 and 歳國) also as とし國 same artist as Hokugan 北鴈 act. c. 1816 to mid 1830s(?)
Umekuni (梅國) also as Mumekuni (む免國) act. c. 1816–26
Yoshiyuki (芳幸) also as よし幸 act. c. 1822

©1999-2021 by John Fiorillo


  • Keyes, R. and Mizushima, K.: The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973.
  • Hendrick Lühl: Schätze der Kamigata: Japanische Farbenholzschnitte aus Osaka, 1780-1880 (Treasures of Osaka: Japanese Color Prints from Osaka, 1780-1880). Musee National d'Histoire et d'Art Luxembourg, 2013.
  • Matsudaira, Susumu: Kamigata yakusha-e shûsei (Collection of Kamigata actor prints), Vol. I. Osaka: Ikeda Bunko, 1997, pp. 107-132.
  • Matsudaira, Susumu: Kamigata nishiki-e zuroku (Record of Kamigata brocade prints). Konan Women's University, Eds. Kobe, 1997.
  • Schwaab, Dean: Osaka Prints. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.
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