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Keisai Eisen, 1790-1848
Seven Komachi Courtesans of the New Yoshiwara: Sekidera Komachi, Shiratama of the Sano Matsuya
(Shin yoshiwara yukun nana komachi: Sekidera Komachi, Sano Matsuya no uchi Shiratama)
signed Keisai Eisen ga, with censor's seal kiwame and publisher's seal of Tsutaya Kichizo (Koeido), ca. 1820-23
oban tate-e 15 3/8 by 10 3/8 in., 38.9 by 26.2 cm
The courtesan Shiratama of the Sano Matsuya brothel is seated before a lavishly decorated dresser with mirror stand. The mirror sets the scene as her private space where she regards herself in a resplendent display of fabric and color. She sits in full regalia with her hair is adorned with gold lacquer ornaments and a brocade garment draped on a kimono stand beside her. To the left of the table we see an early example of product placement, a packet of Bien Senjoko face powder whose owner, a Mr. Sakamoto, was a frequent sponsor of prints at this time, particularly that of Eisen.
The series title, Modern Beauties of the Seven Komachi (Shin Yoshiwara yugimi nana komachi), promises a comparison of specific courtesans from the Yoshiwara (licensed pleasure quarters) to the legendary beauty of the immortal poet, Ono no Komachi (ca. 825-900), within the context of the classical grouping of seven Noh plays portraying apocryphal incidents in the life of the poet which are known collectively as the Nana Komachi (Seven Komachi).
This series specifies the 'New Yoshiwara,' because the quarters had been moved further up the Shinagawa River near the neighborhood of Asakusa after the 'old' Yoshiwara located more centrally near Nihonbashi was destroyed in the Meireki Fire of 1657. Eventually, the newness wore off and it was generally known as the Yoshiwara. However, the 'new' Yoshiwara in the title could allude to the rebuilding of the Yoshiwara following one of the numerous devastating fires that ravaged the quarters periodically (between 1768 and 1866 the district burned to the ground eighteen times).
The episode referenced here, Sekidera Komachi, is based on the play written by Zeami Motokiyo (1363- 1443) which portrays the lonely poetess at the end of her life. In the play, through a conversation with the priest of the Seki Temple, Komachi expresses her deep regret of her vanity and the prideful scorn she displayed towards the many would-be suitors of her youth. In typical ukiyo-e visual short-hand, with images of beauties presented under the guise of a classical literary subject, the cautionary tale of Sekidera Komachi is alluded to with images of women admiring themselves with mirrors.
Matsunosuke Nishiyama, Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversion in Urban Japan, 1600-1868, 1997, p. 60 (on Yoshiwara fires)