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.
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.
Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (Mirror of learning & transmitting Sugawara's secrets of calligraphy: 菅原伝授手習鑑) is based on legends surrounding the life of Sugawara Michizane (845-903: 菅原道真), also known as Kan Shôjô (菅丞相). Founder of the Kanke school of calligraphy and a favorite of Emperor Daigo, Sugawara ran afoul of an envious political rival named Fujiwara no Tokihira (Shihei in the play) and was exiled to Kyûshû. After Sugawara's death, plague and drought spread throughout Japan and the sons of Emperor Daigo died one by one. The Imperial Palace's Great Audience Hall was struck repeatedly by lightning, igniting fires, and Kyoto was battered by rainstorms and floods. Attributing these calamities to Sugawara's vengeful spirit, the imperial court built and dedicated to him a Shinto shrine in 986 called Kitano Tenmangu (北野天満宮) in Kyoto. The court also posthumously restored his title and office, and removed records of his exile. Sugawara was deified as a Tenjin (Heavenly [Sky] deity: 天神), and many Shinto shrines in Japan were and continue to be dedicated to him.
In the play, Sugawara is a calligraphy master and Minister of the Right who shares power with Shihei, Minister of the Left. Sugawara is arrested on a trumped-up charge of plotting to overthrow the emperor and becomes the target of an assassination plot headed by Shihei. Sugawara is exiled to Kyûshû, where he dies cursing Shihei. Ultimately, the villain is slain by the calligrapher's son, Kan Shûsei, the house of Sugawara restored, and Sugawara pronounced a deity.
The drama features the triplets Umôemaru (梅王丸), Sakuramaru (桜), and Matsuômaru (松王丸), sons of Shiradayû, who was Kan Shôjô's seventy-year-old retainer. Their names derive from Shiradayû favorite trees: plum (ume: 梅), cherry (sakura: 桜 or 櫻), and pine (matsu: 松). Each son is a loyal retainer to one of the play's chief characters (Kan Shôjô, Prince Tokiyo, and Shihei, respectively.) The triplet's are performed with contrasting personalities and differing kumadori face makeup; Umôemaru is acted in the heroic aragoto-style (rough stuff: 荒事), Sakuramaru in the more gentle or romantic wagoto manner ("soft-stuff": 和事), and Matsuômaru in the fashion of villains (katakiyaku: 敵役 or more specifically, hagataki, evil retainers). The roles of the three brothers were inspired, so it is said, by the birth of triplets (a rare occurence in Japan) in the Tenma district of Osaka.
In one of the most popular and frequently performed scenes from the play. Kan Shôjô decides to pass on his secrets to his former disciple Takebe Genzô who has been banished from the court for falling in love with a lady-in-waiting named Tonami. After Kan Shojô is exiled, Genzô and Tonami take Kan Shôjô's son, Kan Shûsai, with them to a provincial school they have established in order to keep him safe from Shihei's intrigues. The famous Terakoya ("Temple School": 寺子屋) scene begins with Sugawara's son, the noble-looking Kan Shûsai, standing apart from the rough village children. Shihei has already learned that Genzô is harboring Kan Shûsai, so he dispatches his soldiers to surround the village and orders Genzô to surrender the child's head. Meanwhile, Chiyo escorts her son, the gentle-looking Kôtarô, into the schoolyard for Tonami (Genzô's wife) to enroll him. When Tonami introduces Kôtarô, Genzô realizes the young boy's head might substitute for Kan Shûsai's. It unfolds that Genzô and Tonami must sacrifice an innocent boy to save their master's son. Kan Shûsai survives and, many years later, avenges his father's exile and death by slaying Shihei.
In the present kappazuri-e, Chiyo is shown bringing her son Kôtarô to the provincial school. The child actor is not named on the print, nor is the role.
Yoshio's last stage apperance was in Kyoto at the Kitagawa no Shibai in 1/1818, where he performed as Tatsuta-no-Mae and Kan Shôjô in Sugawara denju tenarai kagami. We have not confirmed whether he also played the role of Chiyo in this particular staging. In any case, the present kappazuri-e was published no later than 1/1818, the month and year of Yoshio's death.
Unlike the vast majority of surviving kappazuri-e, this impression retains much of its original color, with moderate fading of the purple, but good retention of the red and yellow.
References: 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.