Kyoto was the main center of activity for the production of kappazuri-e (stencil prints, literally, "oil-skin prints": 合羽摺絵), with a tradition spanning close to a century. Prints of teahouse women and courtesans represented one important aspect of this genre, although they amounted to only a small fraction of the total output—among these were the Gion nerimono-e of Kyoto (see references below). Far more common were actor prints (yakusha-e: 役者絵), as in the present example.
Once abundant throughout western Japan (Kansai), kappazuri-e were often printed quickly and in small and cheap editions on thin paper, with fugitive pigments (generally more transparent than those used in nishiki-e — "brocade prints" or full-color prints, 浮世絵), which were brushed through stencils after woodblocks were used to stake out the keyblock lines. It was only in Kyoto that kappazuri-e maintained fairly high standards and enjoyed a measure of respect up to the midpoint of the nineteenth century.
The persistent support accorded such a quaint, antiquated technology, as compared with the predominant nishiki method, seems to have been due not only to economics, but also, ironically, to the very primitiveness of the stencil print's appearance. Japanese, in general, value evidence of the artisanal process in their crafts, and kappazuri-e reveal how they are made even more frankly than do nishiki-e. On top of that, Kyoto-ites are known for championing the rustic, imperfect aesthetic of the tea ceremony, and may have actually preferred the quieter, subtler-toned look of stencils to the relatively slick and flamboyant aspects of nishiki-e.
Sadly, almost all stencil prints have perished over time, due to the delicacy of the paper, their generally small size, and the relatively low esteem in which they have been held when compared with nishiki-e (though they, too, were too often neglected). The vast majority of stencil-print designs are now very difficult to find, regardless of condition.
Imoseyama onna teikin (Mount Imo and Mount Se, an exemplary tale of womanly virtue: 妹背山婦女庭訓) premiered in 1771 as a puppet play. It dramatizes historical events leading to the establishment of one of Japan's great families, the Fujiwara, and in particular the victory of its founder Fujiwara [Nakatomi] no Kamatari (614-669) over Soga no Iruka in 645. In the play, Iruka controls his lords (daimyô) by preventing alliances among them that might threaten his rule.
Two families, headed by Kiyozumi and Sadaka, are loyal to the emperor but are feuding and live on opposite sides of the Yoshino River. Complications arise when their children Koganosuke and Hinadori fall in love. After Iruka orders Koganosuke to serve him and Hinadori to become his mistress, the parents and young lovers see how desperate the situation has become with the tyrant Iruka. As the action takes place simultaneously in each house at opposite sides of the kabuki stage, Koganosuke (with his father Kiyozumi's consent) commits ritual suicide (seppuku) to foil Iruka's plans. Not knowing of her lover's death, Hinadori initially considers agreeing to Iruka's lascivious demands as a way of saving Koganosuke from even more harm at the hands of Iruka, but when one of her doll's heads is accidentally knocked off, she takes it as a bad omen and allows Sadaka to behead her. When the parents realize what has happened to the other's child, they arrange a symbolic "marriage" as Sadaka floats Hinadori's head across the river on a koto (horizontal harp) decorated with her festival dolls.
Sangorô III played the role of Kiyozumi in Osaka (9/1817, Kita Shinchi no Shibai, 北新地芝居) before reprising it two months later in Kyoto for the performance depicted here.
Unlike the vast majority of surviving kappazuri-e, this impression retains much of its original color, with moderate fading of the purple. The manner of drawing the nigao (facial likeness) owes much to the Ryûkôsai/Shokôsai lineage of Kamigata printmaking.
References: KNP-6, p. 25 (both Osaka and Kyoto performances); GPS: "The Gion Parade Stencil Prints." Ujlaki, Peter. In: Andon, no. 63, 1999, pp. 5-16. GNP: "Gion Nerimono Prints Revisited: The List." Ujlaki, Peter and Nakade, Akifumi. In: Andon, no. 75, 2003, pp. 5-48.