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One of the last of the Ukiyo-e masters, Kunichika was born Oshima Yasohachi in 1835, in the Kyobashi district of Edo (Tokyo). The area was home to merchants and artisans and comprised the heart of the Edo culture. In early childhood he assumed the surname "Arakawa" from his mother. At age 11, he was apprenticed to the Yamagataye, a thread and yarn store in the Nihonbashi district, but preferred scribbling and sketching to learning the skills of the dry-goods trade. By 1846, when his elder brother opened a "raised picture" (oshie-e) shop, Yasohachi began to produce illustrations for him. He also designed actor portraits for battledores. In 1848, at age 13, he was accepted as an apprentice into the studio of Kunisada (Toyokuni III, 1786-1865). His first works as an apprentice date from the early 1850`s and the first print to be signed, "picture by student Yasohachi", dates from 1852. His new artist`s name "Kunichika" dates from 1854. His status within the studio grew and by the time of Kunisada`s death in 1865, Kunichika had been commissioned to produce several portraits of his teacher, and after Kunisada`s death, was commissioned to design two memorial portraits. His increasing importance can be found in the Saikenki, a type of popular guide containing ratings of Ukiyo-e artists. In publications dating from 1865, 1867 and 1885, Kunichika`s name appears among the top ten; in eighth, fifth and fourth place, respectively.
Kunichika was little concerned for material wealth or personal appearance and was often in debt. He thoroughly enjoyed partying and drinking and fancied the theatre. His interest in Kabuki and his portrayal of its actors gave him entree to their world and he spent hours backstage documenting the poses and facial expressions of the actors in their various roles. Contemporary reports observed that his use of color in his actor prints was the most skilful aspect of his art, in keeping with the Utagawa tradition.
A master of theatrical prints, Kunichika documented the history of the Mejia-era Kabuki. His oban bust portraits are well known, but his Kabuki triptychs are among the most dramatic ever produced. He remained active up to the end of his life with documented works dating to only months before his death.
Kunichika died on July 19th, 1900 at the age of 65, due to poor health and heavy drinking. His grave can still be found at the Buddhist Shingon-sect temple of Honryuji in Imado, Asakusa. His death marked the end of an era of full-color woodblock actor prints and the end of the Ukiyo-e print tradition.