A fantastic original multi-color woodblock print, “The Story of the Teapot-Tanuki” from Kyosai’s Comic Drawings “Ghosts & Oni Demons” Kyosai Gafu Sohen, Vol I, from 1860. Extremely rare, seldom seen, and much sought-after series of some of Kyosai’s most fantastic woodblocks.
The abbot of the temple of Morin-ji (茂林 寺) in the province of Kōzuke was a great lover of Cha-no-yu, the tea ceremony. One day, he decided to boil water for tea using a new teapot that he had recently bought in a shop near the temple. When he put it on the fire, however, the teapot began to shake, let out a cry of pain, and jumped away from the fire. Incredulous, the abbot saw four legs, a thick tail and a tanuki head sticking out of the teapot, and he began to wander around the room. The abbot called out to the other monks to help him hold the creature still, but, when they finally managed to grab it, it went back to being a normal empty teapot.
To get rid of that demon-possessed tool, the abbot passed it on to a street vendor, who went home happy to have made a great deal. Once home, the teapot-tanuki revealed its shape to the peddler, begging him not to chase it or put it on the fire as they had done in the temple; her only desire was to be treated with kindness. In return, the tanuki-teapot offered to help him earn money by walking a wire and doing other acrobatic shows for the crowds. He accepted and the next day the two put on a show that attracted many onlookers.
Thus it was that the peddler became the director of a show that brought together large paying crowds every day and over the years amassed a considerable fortune. Eventually, he returned the tanuki teapot to the temple monks, who have kept it as a treasure ever since.
It is thought that this fairy tale is connected to another legend centered on the temple of Morin-ji: the temple preserves a bottomless teapot, originally owned by the monk Shukaku. He participated in the foundation of the temple and, over a hundred years later, on the occasion of a great ceremony that brought together thousands of monks, he used this inexhaustible teapot with which he was able to serve drinks to all the participants.
Of course, over time, rumors also began to circulate about the supernatural nature of Shukaku who, when cornered, revealed his true form, confessed that he was actually a tanuki hundreds of years old and that he had arrived in Japan from China over 800 years earlier, after studying the teachings of the Buddha for centuries.
The origin of the title of this fairy tale still remains a mystery. “Chagama” (茶 釜) is the term normally used to indicate a cast iron teapot, but “bunbuku” is a very unusual word and over time it has been written with different kanji. According to one theory, the 分 福 script would suggest the meaning of “sharing luck”, while another interpretation sees it simply as an onomatopoeia reminiscent of boiling water.
The double page comes from Kawanabe Kyōsai’s volume entitled Kyōsai Gafu (狂 斎 画譜), the collection of 29 humorous images in which each image is accompanied by a kyōku (狂 句), a comic haiku. This was the work that started his career, but the streak of bizarre and humor that will characterize his entire production is already evident.
This double page illustrates the moment when the monks try in vain to grab the teapot-tanuki. The scene is very dynamic, thanks to the use of lines that describe the splashes of water that hit the monks. These, in turn, react with comically exaggerated movements and expressions to the rascals of the teapot. Looking more closely at the teapot, we can see that tanuki’s limbs and face are very blurry, suggesting a transformation still in progress. In addition, the tanuki-teapot breaks up the space of the representation, coming out from the upper edge of the illustration, a feature that will become common in subsequent developments in the manga.
The Woodblock Print
This woodblock is comprised of conjoined pages from the album forming a chuban-sized block. Strong color in very good condition, with only minor wear along the bottom margin. Unbacked with a clean verso. A few small pinholes throughout.
About the Artist
Living through the Edo period to the Meiji period (May 18, 1831 – April 26, 1889), Kyōsai Kawanabe (河鍋 暁斎) witnessed Japan transform itself from a feudal country into a modern state. The son of a samurai, his first aesthetic shock was at the age of nine when he picked up a decapitated human head in the Kanda river. After apprenticing with Utagawa Kuniyoshi, he received his artistic training in the Kanō school under Maemura Tōwa, who gave him the nickname “The Painting Demon”, but soon abandoned the formal traditions for the greater freedom of the popular school. Kyōsai attained a reputation as a caricaturist. His very long painting on makimono “The battle of the farts” may be seen as a caricature of this genre.
Kyōsai is considered by many to be the greatest successor of Hokusai (of whom, however, he was not a pupil), as well as the first political caricaturist of Japan. He created what is considered to be the first manga magazine in 1874: Eshinbun Nipponchi, with Kanagaki Robun.