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Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III), 1786-1865
Shunkan Sozu, Oyasu, Oben, Ariomaru, Kameomaru
signed at lower left, Toyokuni ga within artist's Toshidama cartouche, with publisher's seal Jokin (Joshuya Kinzo of Shofukudo) and carver's seal Sashichi koku, shita-uri seal, and nanushi censor seals Kingusa and Watanabe, ca. 1850, 9th lunar month
oban yoko-e 10 by 14 3/4 in., 25.4 by 37.4 cm
This (possibly unique) print depicts two scenes as they occur simultaneously in the kabuki play Outing to Pick Pine Seedlings on the Rat Day of the New Year (Hime komatsu ne no hi asobi) by the playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725).
The story has its origins in 1177, when the historical monk Shunkan Sozu (a sozu is a Buddhist priest) of the Kyoto temple Hosho-ji was exiled to the island of Kikaigajima for his role as a supporter of the Genji clan in a failed coup against Taira no Kiyomori (1118-1181). In the 14th century epic account of those events, The Tale of Heike (Heike Monogatari), his dutiful disciple Ario comes to Kikaigajima when it becomes evident that Shunkan will not receive a pardon and will likely die on the forlorn island, and arrives in time to lay the old monk to rest. The story was adapted to Noh theater in the play Shunkan, and later to bunraku and kabuki productions which expand considerably on Shunkan's adventures.
In the kabuki play Hime komatsu ne no hi asobi, Shunkan escapes the island to protect the Emperor's pregnant concubine Kogo no tsubone at a remote retreat in Horagadake, where he enlists the help of a local midwife, Oyasu, who (unbeknownst to Shunkan) is fortunately loyal to the Genji cause. In this scene, Oyasu attempts to show her trustworthiness by taking an oath on a pair of bronze mirrors, just as a samurai would take an oath on his sword. But Shunkan hesitates to allow her to do so, fearful of revealing his secret. As he takes one of the mirrors away from the Oyasu, he catches a glimpse of himself and is so shocked by how much he has aged since he was exiled that he accidentally reveals his identity to her.
In the composition, the actor Sawamura Chojuro V (Suketakaya Takasuke III, 1802-1853) is in the role of the Shunkan Sozu, pulling on his beard as he regards himself in the mirror which is decorated with the kanji, Tenkaichi (lit. 'unique thing' or 'best on earth') while the actors Onoe Baiko IV (Onoe Kikugoro IV, 1808-1860) as Oyasu and the five-year old Sawamura Yoshijiro (Sawamura Tanosuke III, 1845-1878) as Oben (in reality Tokujumaru) look on anxiously. In the foreground, on the left, Seki Sanjuro III (1805-1870) in the role of Ariomaru (adpated from Ario), wrestles over a large signpost with the actor Arashi Kichisaburo III (1810-1864) in the role of Kameomaru.
Basil Stewart, A Guide to Japanese Prints and Their Subject Matter, 1979, p. 311
Tim Clark & Osamu Ueda, The Actor's Image: Printmakers of the Katsukawa School, 1994, pp. 108 (on play)
Andreas Marks, Publisher's of Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Compendium, 2011, p. 479 (on mysterious 'shita-uri' or 'low sale' seal)