Utagawa Kunisada Tale of Shima

Shunkan Sozu

Bien Senjoko face powder

Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III), 1786-1865

Humorous Matching Pictures: Tale of Shima
(Gie kyodai: Shima monogatari)

signed Kochoro Kunisada ga, publisher's seal Ezakiya (Ezakiya Kichibei of Tenjudo), censor's seal kiwame, ca. 1836-38

oban tate-e 14 7/8 by 10 1/4 in., 37.8 by 26 cm

A beauty sits beside her lacquer mirror stand, checking her coiffure with a set of mirrors. In her open dresser we see a package of Bien Senjoko face powder, and a drawer full of her hair ornaments. Her lightweight cotton yukata is loose around her shoulders, revealing an alluring view of her neck and upper back- an area considered very erogenous.

The print title, Shima Monogatari (Tale of the Island) refers to the story of the historical monk Shunkan Sozu (a sozu is a Buddhist priest) of the Kyoto temple Hosho-ji was banished to the island of Kikaigashima in 1177 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), Shunkan is never allowed to return from exile. 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, including versions which feature his clandestine return in the service of the Genji clan.

In some kabuki plays based on the story, 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 a famous 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 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 cartouche at the upper right we see the famous moment in the play when Shunzan is holding the two mirrors, moments away from catching his reflection.

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, Publishers of Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Compendium, 2011, p. 122 (dating of series)



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site last updated
October 28, 2021

Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
fx: (212) 585-0475