Biographies of Brave and Loyal Retainers, Act 1

The actor Bandō Mitsugorō IV in the play "Hana to Mitsu Yuki no Shiraishi"

Japanese Color Woodblock Print

Biographies of Brave and Loyal Retainers, Act 1

by Utagawa Kunisada, 1847-1850

The actors Iwai Shijaku, Ichikawa Komazō V and Matsumoto Kōshirō V in Date Kurabe Okuni Kabuki

IHL Cat. #2213

IHL Cat. #2081

About This Print

The above prints, the top one published by Yamadaya Shōbei and the bottom one by Izumiya Ichibei, depict a scene in Act 1, "Examining the Helmet," from the play Biographies of Brave and Loyal Retainers, a version of  the vendetta tale commonly referred to as Chūshingura or Kandehon Chūshingura (The Treasury of the Loyal Retainers).

Originally written for the puppet theater (bunraku) and staged for the first time in the 8th lunar month of 1748 in Ōsaka, the plays tell a tale of revenge by 47 loyal retainers (a.k.a. samurai or rōnin - masterless samurai) on behalf of their dead lord.

The fictionalized plays are based on the historical event known as the Akō incident (1701-1704). In summary, the plays tell the story of carefully planned revenge by the 47 rōnin against Kira Yoshinaka, an official of the shogunate, whose insults against their lord, Asano Naganori, while performing official duties at the shogun's palace, lead to Asano's ordered death by suicide. Vowing revenge against Kira, they wait patiently for the moment to strike, killing Kira in a night attack on his mansion. After presenting Kira's head at the grave of their master, they surrender and, after much debate by the shogunate, are sentenced to an honorable death of ritual suicide, seppuku, rather than execution. They are enshrined with their master at Sengakuj Temple and are a source of worship for many.

In this scene from Act 1, we see Lady Kaoyo, the wife of Lord En'ya, identifying the helmet of the dead Nitta Yoshisada, an enemy of shōgun Ashikaga Takauji, which is to be enshrined in Kamakura's Hachiman shrine. The four other figures in the print are Lord En'ya, Lord Wakanosuke, Lord Moronō and Naoyoshi Ashikaga, the younger brother of the shogun.

For other prints on the theme of the loyal retainers see Chūshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers) in Woodblock Prints.

Editions of this Print
The top print, published by Yamadaya Shōbei with a framing sawtooth pattern is considered a first edition, with the bottom print published by Izumiya Ichibei with a framing pattern of bats within circles considered a later edition made from the blocks originally owned by Yamadaya. (It is assumed that Izumiya bought the blocks from Yamadaya.)  I have also come across the below print published by Yamadaya Shōbei which used a variation of a bat within circle framing pattern. As all the prints carry the original dual censor seals Murata 村田 and Mera 米良, used between 1847 and 1850, it is not possible to know which of the two Yamadaya versions was issued first. 

Another edition of the print by Yamadaya Shōbei

All twelve prints in the set
top row (left to right): acts 1-4
center row (left to right): acts 5-8
bottom row (left to right) act 9-12

Print Details

 IHL Catalog #2213 and #2081
 Biographies of Brave and Loyal Retainers, Act 1
 忠雄義臣傳 [忠雄義臣伝] 巻之一  Chūyū gishin den, maki no ichi
 Series 忠雄義臣傳  Chūyū gishin den
 Utagawa Kunisada I (1786–1865)

Ichiyōsai Toyokuni hitsu 一陽斎豊国筆

 Seal no artist's seal
 Publication Date
Murata 村田 and Mera 米良 dual censor seals used between 1847 and 1850.
IHL Cat. #2213
Yamadaya Shōbei 山田屋庄兵衛 (note: according to Marks "became Yamadaya Shōjirō in late 1851")
seal: Nakabashi, Yamashō han 中橋 山庄版
[Marks: pub. ref. 585; seal 24-038]

IHL Cat. #2081
Izumiya Ichibei 和泉屋市兵衛
seal: Hon Sen'ichi 本泉市
[Marks: pub. ref. 180; seal 21-236]

 Carver unknown
 Impression IHL Cat. #2213: good
 IHL Cat. #2081: fair
 Colors IHL Cat. #2213: excellent
 IHL Cat. #2081: excellent
 Condition IHL Cat. #2213: good  - almost full size; not backed; wrinkling along left edge; small paper hole upper right margin
 IHL Cat. #2081: good - full size; not backed; stray printer's marks
 Genre ukiyo-eshibai-e 
Mera 米良 and Watanabe 渡辺 double nanushi censor seals of 1851 and shita-uri シタ売 seal 
 Format horizontal oban
 H x W Paper IHL Cat. #2213: 8 7/8 x 13 1/2 in. (22.5 x 34.3 cm)   
 IHL Cat. #2081: 9 9/16 x 13 7/8 in. (24.3 x 35.2 cm)
 H x W Image IHL Cat. #2213: 8 3/8 x 12 3/8 in. (21.3 x 31.4 cm)   
 IHL Cat. #2081: 9 3/16 x 12 3/4 in. (23.3 x 32.4 cm)
 Collections This Print Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University AcNo. AkoGA-G0018-01 (Izumiya Ichibei edition)

 Reference Literature
last revision:
4/27/2021 created