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Biography: Isshûsai Kunikazu (一珠齋國員)

Isshusai Kunikazu late 1850s tenjin matsuri
Isshûsai Kunikazu print from c. late 1850s
Tenjin matsuri yûkei ("天神祭り夕景)
Series: Naniwa hyakkei (浪花百景)
Woodblock print, chûban (256 x 180 mm)




Isshusai Kunikazu signatureIsshusai Kunikazu signatureIsshûsai Kunikazu (一珠齋國員 act. c. 1847-1881), an Osaka print designer, might have been a pupil of the Edo artist Utagawa Kunisada I (歌川國貞). At this time, hundreds of designs have been documented over a fairly long career, and it is possible that many more may yet surface as research continues. Kunikazu worked almost exclusively in small format (chûban, approx. 250 x 180 mm, and mameban, 130x100 mm or smaller,) covering subjects such as yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者絵), fûkeiga (landscapes: 風景画), bijinga (prints of beautiful women: 美人画), kachôga (bird-and-flower pictures: 花鳥画), musha-e (warrior prints: 武者絵), sensô-e (war prints: 戦争絵), Nagasaki-e (foreigners in Nagasaki: 長崎絵), and very rarely, surimono (privately commissioned prints: 摺物). However, at least one bijinga is known in the larger ôban format (approx. 370 x 260 mm untrimmed), as well as a few horizontal ôban landscapes for a series titled Tôto meisho (Famous Views of the Eastern Capital: 東都名所), published by Wakamatsuya Yoshirô [Gensuke] (若松屋与四郎) circa 1847-1852.

The landscape tradition as an independent genre never really took hold in Kamigata printmaking as it had in Edo, although Osaka artists frequently included stage scenery drawn more like actual landscapes as minor motifs or settings in their actor-print designs. A few late-period Osaka artists designed fûkeiga in a style derived from Utagawa Hiroshige I and Utagawa Hiroshige II, including Isshûsai Kunikazu, Hasegawa Sadanobu (1809-1879), and Ichiyôsai Yoshitaki (1841-1899).

A fascinating example in vertical chûban format of a Kunikazu fûkeiga is shown on the left. Titled Tenjin matsuri yûkei (Evening View of the Tenjin Festival: 天神祭り夕景), it is from the collaborative series Naniwa hyakkei (One Hundred Views of Osaka: 浪花百景) issued, it seems, in the late 1850s. The print shows a procession of river boats from the Dôjima to the Okawa river. The large boat in the middle distance carries portable shrines. A vessel in the near middle distance features a stage where traditional Japanese court dances, folk entertainments, and geiko performances (dancing girls or young geisha) were held to the accompaniment of sacred Kagura and Dôgaku music. During the heyday of Tokugawa-period Osaka, more than 70 festival danjiri (floats: 地車) would be carried along the embankment as onlookers watched the pageant move upon a riverscape punctuated by red lanterns. The huge clouds of billowing smoke seen here are from festival bonfires. Kunikazu contributed 40 images to the series, while Yoshitaki added 31 and Nansui Yoshiyuki (南粹芳雪 1835-79) produced 29 prints.

Kunikazu also collaborated on a similar series entitled Miyako hyakkei (One Hundred Views of Kyoto: 都百景) published by Ishiwa-ban (石和板) that involved the artists Umekawa Tôkyo (梅川東居 active circa mid 1850-early 1860s), Gyokuen (玉園 active c. 1850s–75?), and Hokusui (北水 active circa late 1850s–1860).

Perhaps Kunikazu's most admired series of actor-print designs is his Dai Nippon rokujû yo shû (Sixty-odd Provinces of Great Japan: 大日本六十余州) from circa 1862, which is known in both deluxe and standard editions. The connections between the kabuki scenes and the provinces (their particular histories or famous goods and services) can be clever and entertaining.

Among Kunikazu's series featuring sensô-e (war prints: 戦争絵) is Kunikazu's Tôsei buyûden (Tales of Present-day Heroism: 當世武勇傳) published in 1868 by Kawaden (川傳). The series of fifty-four (?) designs served as a kind of breaking-news reporting, only possible at that historical moment due to the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, which had previously banned publications (both images and texts) about current political events.

Kunikazu's series of musha-e (warrior prints: 武者絵) titled Toyotomi Ichidaiki (The Life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi: 豊臣一代記) from around the late 1850s presents thirty scenes of the general's life on ten hosoban sheets (each 160 × 358 cm), three views to a sheet. Toyotomi, a popular subject in ukiyo-e prints and paintings, is considered Japan's second great unifier in a series of three warlords: (1) Oda Nobunaga (織田信長 1534-82); (2) Toyotomi Hideyoshi; and (3) Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first shogun, 徳川家康 1543-1616). These historical giants gradually unified Japan after nearly 140 years of civil war (c. 1467 – c. 1603; called the "Age of civil war," Sengoku jidai: 戦国時代).

* Note: There was a second Osaka artist of the period, active for just a few years (c. late 1854-58), who also signed as Kunikazu, but with the second character in his name written differently (國計).

Isshûsai Kunikazu's Names

Utagawa (歌川); also used a round seal reading "Utagawa" (see signature above right)

Art Name (geimei):
Kunikazu (國員)

Art Pseudonyms ():
Isshûsai (一珠齋) also read as "Ichijusai"
Kayôrô (花陽楼) used for a surimono and for prints in the series Tôsei buyûden (當世武勇傳)

Pupils of Isshûsai Kunikazu

So far, no pupils have been identified.

For more information about Isshûsai Kunikazu, see John Fiorillo's web page: