Chushingura Act 1, Number 2

There are various categories of ukiyo-e, such as bijin-ga (beautiful women), sumo prints and views of famous places. Of these, except for shunga1, the largest number of ukiyo-e prints created was the so-called yakusha-e2, which are prints depicting kabuki actors. Most of the artworks in this category depict kabuki actors performing on stage, but there are also some other themes. For example, depicting the daily lives of actors and scenes in the dressing room. There are also yakusha-e prints commemorating the death and death anniversary of actors, which are called shini-e. In addition, there are yakusha mitate-e3 which is a portrait of an actor that is not based on the actual kabuki stage4. Although yakusha-e was the most commonly produced ukiyo-e print, there is only one actor print in the Cortazzi Ukiyo-e Collection housed at the Lisa Sainsbury Library. This article will describe the said print which is entitled “Chūshingura Daijo 2”.

As the year of production is an important key to understanding this ukiyo-e print, this should be examined first. There are four small round marks on the upper right-hand side of the work. They are the censorship marks from which can be deduced the year of publication. In this case, these marks indicate that this work was censored in the 10th month in 5th year of Kaei (1852), and the print was produced at that time.

The name of the artist of this work is shown as “Toyokuni ga” on the right-hand side. There were three ukiyo-e artists who called themselves Toyokuni. As of the time of the publication in 1852, this print was created by Toyokuni III5 who had previously been known as Utagawa Kunisada (I) (1786-1865). Kunisada was born into a family that had a hereditary share in the ferryboat business on the Sumida River in Edo. The stable income from the family business enabled him to lead an affluent life. At the age of 15, he was apprenticed to Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825), who was famous for his prints of kabuki actors and also was the head of the Utagawa School. In 1844, at the age of 59, he inherited the name of Toyokuni. He was active as the leader of the Utagawa School until his death at the age of 79. The number of the artworks he created is the highest among the entire ukiyo-e artists. This is not only due to the long active period of more than 60 years as an ukiyo-e artist but also due to the fact that his works, especially his actor prints, were extremely popular and incessantly demanded by the public at the time6.

This print illustrates a kabuki play of “Chūshingura” which is based on an actual event that occurred during the Genroku era (1688-1704). In March 1701, the lord of the Akō clan, Asano Takumi no Kami, attacked Kira Kōzuke no Suke at the great corridor of the Edo Castle7, which lead to him being ordered to commit seppuku on the same day, his territory was confiscated and his line was extinguished. As a result, the Akō clan was dismantled and all its retainers became ronin (masterless samurai). On the night of 14 December, Genroku 15 (1702) (early morning of 31 January 1703)8, 47 of the retainers of the domain stormed Kira’s mansion, beheading Kira Kōzuke no Suke in order to avenge the death of their lord. The forty-seven samurai withdrew from Kira’s residence9 and placed Kira’s head in front of their lord’s grave. They were ordered to commit seppuku by the Tokugawa shogunate in February, Genroku 16 (1703). This event was the biggest revenge incident during the Edo period, and people respected and praised their true loyalty and saw it as the highest ideal of the samurai.

Many plays were written based on this true story immediately after the event. Since the joruri play entitled “Kana-dehon Chūshingura” became the most popular amongst all the others, the genre was collectively called “Chūshingura”. Plays, films and dramas of Chūshingura continue to be performed over and over again as if they were embedded in Japanese people’s DNA. The highlight of this story is the raid that took place on the night of 14 December. Hence, Chūshingura plays are often performed in December.

During the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate forbade literary and dramatic events from the samurai society that were set in their era. The characters in the plays based upon coetaneous events were, therefore, hypothesized as other historical figures or their names were changed to similar sounding characters.

Coming back to our ukiyo-e print, what is portrayed here is “Kō Musashi no Kami Moronao”10, which is likened to the villain Kira Kōzuke no Suke. This is the introductory part of the play; it is a fictional part of the story which was inserted to impress the audience with how vicious Kō no Moronao is. The all-black costume emphasizes the nefariousness of the character11.

Usually, the actor’s name is shown along with the name of the role in actor prints, but this ukiyo-e does not specify who the actor is. This is because the Tenpō Reforms12, which took place from 1841, prohibited the publication of actor prints. These reforms came to an end in 1843 with the downfall of Mizuno Tadakuni, the promoter of the reforms, but the publishers remained cautious to avoid producing yakusha-e for some years. Eventually around 1847, actor prints were revived taking extra care to avoid printing the actor’s name on the artwork. The voluntary self-censorship period seems to have lasted for about 10 years13, and this is the reason why this ukiyo-e print, produced in 1852, does not clearly state the name of the actor. In the situation where the actor’s name cannot be shown, it is vital to make it clear which actor is depicted just by looking at the print. Accordingly, the method of drawing by capturing the characteristics of the actor in a realistic manner became more important. Regarding this work, the distinctive shape of the nose and the mole above the left eyebrow suggests that it is Matsumoto Kōshirō V (1764-1838). However, by the time this ukiyo-e was created in 1852, Matsumoto Kōshirō V had already passed away. Therefore, this actor print could not represent a kabuki performance which had actually taken place. This is not a special case, but many works depicting deceased kabuki actors were created during this period. Negishi Mika gives the Tenpō Reforms as one of the reasons why many ukiyo-e prints portraying deceased great actors were produced around this period. As a result of the reforms, great kabuki actors were expelled from Edo and moved to Kyoto or Osaka. In consequence, there were no great actors in Edo at this time14.

According to the database of the National Diet Library15, this print is the middle part of a triptych. Moreover, there are other triptychs in a series depicting actors in roles of Chūshingura, and this triptych is a part of the series. Like Matsumoto Kōshirō V, many of the actors depicted in this series were already dead at the time of the publication which is dated in September or October 1852. It is probable that this series was produced to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the raid by the forty-seven samurai.

When people in the Edo period saw this ukiyo-e, they would be thrilled by the story line of the play, and would think of the deceased great actor, Matsumoto Kōshirō V.
When I look at this ukiyo-e print, I think of the late Dr Roger Simpson, who passed away in July 2022. Together with his wife, Paddy, he participated in almost every Third Thursday Lecture held by the Sainsbury Institute from the very beginning. He was passionate about collecting actor prints. Every time he added a new acquisition to his ukiyo-e collection, he happily reported it to me, sending me picture of the ukiyo-e by e-mail and asking me questions about the print. I would like to dedicate this article to the late Dr Roger Simpson who loved actor prints. I would also like to express my deepest condolences to his bereaved family.

Akira Hirano
Lisa Sainsbury Library


1. Takahashi Tetsu, Ukiyoe Sono Himerareta Ichimen, (Tōkyō: Kōbunsha, 1969), 20.

2. Negishi Mika, “Sandai Toyokuni Yakushae no Saikentō,” Ukiyoe Geijutsu 154 (2017): 33, https://doi.org/10.34542/ukiyoeart.1475

3. It differs from the actor prints called mitate which were produced to advertise a Kabuki performance prior to its premiere. They are not categorised as yakusha mitate-e although they are not based on an actual stage.

4. Akō Shiritsu Rekishi Hakubutsukan, Utagawa Kunisada no Chūshingura Ukiyoe, (Akō-shi: Akō Shiritsu Rekishi Hakubutsukan, 2014), 83.

5. He called himself Toyokuni II, but there was a Toyokuni II before him. Therefore, he is called Toyokuni III now a days for clarification.

6. Negishi Mika, “Sandai Toyokuni Yakushae no Saikentō,” Ukiyoe Geijutsu 154 (2017): 33, https://doi.org/10.34542/ukiyoeart.1475

7. The cause of Asano’s attack on Kira is unclear, but people were quite willing to believe that Kira continued harassing Asano until he lost his temper.

8. In pre-modern Japan, sunrise was the standard for changing the date for ordinary people, although the legal provision defined this as midnight instead. Therefore, in terms of the current sense of time, where the date changes at midnight, the incident actually occurred early in the morning on 15 December.

9. One of the 47 samurai, Terasaka Kichiemon, disappeared on the way from Kira’s residence to Sengaku-ji Temple where Asano’s gave was. The reason for his disappearance is unknown.

10. A military commander who lived in Japan in the 14th century. In military tale entitled “Taiheiki,” he is portrayed as a villainous man who excels in political and military skills. Taking the name of this heinous historical figure emphasizes the brutality of Kira Kōzuke no Suke.

11. Urushizawa Sonoko, Enmokubetsu Kabuki no Ishō:  Kanshō Nyūmon, (Tōkyō: Tōkyō Bijutsu, 2014), 32.

12. The reforms were enforced during the Tenpo era (1830-1844), hence the name. One of the most significant effects of the reforms on the general public in Edo was that it regulated a sumptuous and dissipated lifestyle. Kabuki and ukiyo-e were particularly targeted and strictly controlled.

13. Fujisawa Akane, Ukiyoe ga Tsukutta Edo Bunka, (Tōkyō: Kasama Shoin, 2013), 123-125.

14. Negishi Mika, “Sandai Toyokuni Yakushae no Saikentō,” Ukiyoe Geijutsu 154 (2017): 44, https://doi.org/10.34542/ukiyoeart.1475

15. The title cartouche on the top left of the print in the National Diet Library Collection displays the distinctive gradations of tricolour: red, white and blue. On the other hand, the one in the Cortazzi Collection is printed in solid red, which implies that the print in the Cortazzi Collection could have been a later edition.