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How to read an actor print 

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This print was issued commercially in the autumn of 1831. It is laden with visual and textual information for the viewer to process. The following notes indicate some of the ways in which this print would have been read when first offered for sale.

Inscriptions and marks

Migawari mo
kore de sando ya
Shimosa guri

Here I am, for the third time,
with a changed appearance,
Like a chestnut from Shimosa!_


The snow-covered pine branches (matsu) were meant not only to recall the character’s name, Matsuo maru, but also through their literary associations to emphasise his tragic fate and heroic nature (his triplet brothers were named after the plum, Umeo maru, and cherry, Sakura maru). In this print, Kunisada chose to depart from stage convention and depict the hero in a heavy overcoat decorated with roused dragons, beasts associated with great strength and nobility. The dragons serve to amplify the force of Danjuro’s VIIs pose and reflect the dreadful conflict of emotions within his loyal heart.

Although he is in the employ of the villain of the piece, Matsuomaru remains loyal to his true lord, Kan Shojo. The villain ordered the murder of Kan Shojo’s young son and heir, Kan Shusai. He commanded Matsuomaro to accompany the party of officers sent to capture and kill the boy because he was the only person in his retinue who could identify the boy with certainty.

Matsuomaru contrived to have his own son killed in place of Kan Shusai. His son is murdered off stage; it takes all his will to retain his composure at the muffled sound of the deathblow.

His son’s severed head is then brought on stage in a box and laid before him. He opens the box, gazes on his son’s head, and with complete self-control announces, Ah, that he has beheaded Kan Shusai.there can be no doubt, no question. Kunisada has depicted Danjuro as Matsuomaru at this dreadful moment. We see the actor portraying Matsuomaru’s pain as he is caught between his personal, paternal feelings and the merciless demands made by the code of loyalty that bound him to his lord.

His excruciating inner struggle is expressed by the way the actor clenches his fist, grits his teeth and crosses his eyes. The hero must, without hesitation, fulfil his obligations to his lord no matter what the personal cost.

This grim scene is regarded as one of the weightiest in all Kabuki for male-role actors.

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Organised for Japan 2001

The Fitzwilliam Museum is especially grateful to John Carpenter, Tim Clark, Paul M. Griffith, Hideyuki Iwata and Ellis Tinios for their generous help during the preparation of this exhibition.

Funded by Japan 2001