The Rokkasen (Six Immortal Poets: 六歌仙) were ninth-century literary giants whose names were first linked together in the poetic anthology Kokin wakashû (Collection of ancient and modern poems: 古今集) in 905 AD. The term kasen (immortals of waka, 和歌, or Japanese poems) was derived from the Chinese term shixian (Immortals of poems: 詩仙) and may have been adopted for the Rokkasen by the mid-10th century. There were various dance plays performed (in Edo), such as Rokkasen sugata no irodori (Six immortal poets in the guises of love) in 3/1834. A much earlier Osaka version called Yosooi rokkasen (Six poets in colorful attire) was staged in 1789 by Arashi Hinasuke I (1741-96). For a later version, Nakamura Shikan II retained Hinasuke’s structure but had the play re-choreographed and set to new music. The dances were fanciful mixtures of modernized domestic tales (mostly involving unrequited love for Komachi) and historical legends. The dance roles were usually performed in the manner of hengemono (transformation pieces) employing hayagawari (quick-change techniques).
The artist signed the sheets with two different signatures, Shunpu and Hokumyô. The Naniwa Shoryû gajin meika annai (Guide to the many famous contemporary artists of Osaka), circa 1831, cites a "Shunpusai Hokumyô" as an actor portraitist living in Dôjima, Osaka.
The dating of this work (and a few other kobans cited in the literature) is based on the likelihood that it was published circa 1830 or 1834, when Ichikawa Danjûrô VII performed briefly during separate tours in Osaka under the name Ichikawa Hakuen. Even so, this appears to be a mitate-e (analogue print), a composition depicting actors in roles not performed in a known production.
Each sheet bears the title Rokkasen (六歌仙) within the cartouches enclosing the role and actor names. Complete sets of koban designs such as this one are rare.
Note: Osaka koban designs are very uncommon. Our example is unrecorded in the standard literature.
References: NKE, p. 532