Japanese prints of the XVIII –XIX century from the collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts







Ukiyo-e are popular pictures of the everyday life of the urban class in the Edo period. Originally the word ukiyo was used to designate one of the Buddhist categories and could be translated as "world of misery" or "world of sorrows". At the end of the 17th century ukiyo came to mean the modern world, the world of earthly joys and pleasure. The creation of Japanese ukiyo-e prints reached its heyday at the end of the 18th century. The main figures in ukiyo-e prints came to be representatives of the third estate: courtesans, actors, sumō wrestlers, characters from Japanese plays and legendary heroes.

The "Kanadehon Chūshingura" series of prints is linked to a kabuki play of the same name and is devoted to the famous story of 47 betrayed samurai, who became ronin or warriors without a suzerain. The ronin worked out a plan of retribution over several years, attacked the castle of the man guilty of their master's death, cut off his head and then placed it on the grave of their deceased overlord.

The play was based on real events, which took place in 1703. The story of the revenge wrought by the 47 samurai served as the material for many kabuki plays, but the most popular of all was the play "Kanadehon Chūshingura", written in 1748 by the playwrights Takeda Izumo, Namiki Senryū and Miyoshi Shōraku. 

Given that during the Edo period (1603-1867) in Japan it was strictly forbidden to depict historical events of the recent past, the action of the play was transposed to the 14th century (the Kamakura period) and the names of all the famous heroes were altered slightly, but sounded sufficiently similar to the original ones for the public to be able to recognize them without any difficulty.

The play was illustrated on several occasions by ukiyo-e prints created by many leading artists such as Kitigawa Utamaro, Utagawa Toyokuni, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. Each artist interpreted the theme in his own style, paying attention to the theatrical action, to the main subject and to the parodying of famous scenes or emphasizing the background landscapes.