Utagawa Kunisada II (Toyokuni III) was one of the most popular masters of Ukiyo-e woodcut prints. More than 20,000 woodcuts in various genres bear his signature. His style is recognisable in theatre posters, in portraits of beautiful women and of sumo wrestlers. He was the most sought after and highly paid artist of his time, a factor that enabled him to establish his own art school where he trained talented artists such as Toyohara Kunichika and Utagawa Sagahide.
Among the most interesting artworks from the collection of woodcuts on display at Square 500, is the triptych ‘Fight on the Roof’, printed in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1848 by the publisher Tsutaya Kichizo. The stylistic trend in Japanese art, Ukiyo-e, first appeared in the seventeenth century. Reflecting the needs, tastes and interests of a growing urban population, it laid the foundations for genres such as the theatre poster, realistic landscape, portraits of beautiful women, ‘shunga’ erotic compositions, and ‘surimono’—illustrations for poetic works.
‘Fight on the Roof’ is part of a series of theatrical posters for the play ‘The Eight Dog Heroes’ of the Kabuki theatre. The drama is an adaptation of the novel by Takizawa Bakin (1767–1849). It is assumed that he laid the foundations of modern Japanese epic literature. The play tells the story of the war between Lord Satomi and his enemies, of the marriage of his daughter, Princess Fuse, to a mythological creature in the form of a dog, and of the suicide of the pregnant Fuse, who cannot bear the disgrace of her marriage. As she is dying, eight crystal beads from her body, each engraved with the symbols of Confucian virtues, float up to the heavens. Eight childless families receive these beads, from which the children of Fuse are born—seven boys and one girl. They grow up without knowing each other, become famous samurai and meet as enemies and rivals in life. The involvement of the brothers in different adventures is the basis of a long, fantastic tale full of heroic feats.
The triptych, ‘Fight on the Roof’, recreates one of the most exciting episodes of the play—the clash between two of the brothers, Inuka Genpachi and Inuzuka Shino. A denouement is imminent, when the third figure in the composition—Daisuke, guardian of the secret of their origin—will intervene, and they will learn that they are not mortal enemies, but members of one and the same family. This scene in the play was a favourite among the artists of Ukiyo-e, having also been interpreted by other prominent artists. The plot allows for the pursuance of a dynamism in the image, of interesting physiognomical features and postures of the characters. The composition, permeated with dramatism, bears elements of theatricality, while the details, accessories and the landscape recreate the romantic character of the plot. For connoisseurs of Ukiyo-e, the woodcut has a high historical value, not only for the established name of the artist, but also for the fact that it documents the performance of the famous actors of the Kabuki theatre, Seki Sanjuro III and Bando Shuka I, in the roles of the two brothers.