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.
The original tale was an unproduced script (based on a kôdan or storytelling lecture or oral narrative: 講談) called Asagao (Morning glory: 朝顔), written by Chikamatsu Tokusô (1751-1810) circa 1804-06. Later illustrated books and plays followed, including the kabuki play Shôutsushi asagao nikki (Recreating the true diary of morning glory: 生写朝顔日記) by Dekishima Sensuke in 1812, although that production was a failure.
Keisei tsukushi no tsumagoto (A courtesan playing the Tsukushi koto: 傾城筑紫琴) was first produced in 1/1814. The "Tsukushi" of the title refers to the former province now called Kyûshû, and it may also pun on tsukushi or monozukushi, a literary technique used in Edo-period drama to weave a catalog of related things into the dialog. A later and now better known version of the drama is called Shô utsushi Asagao nikki (Recreating the true diary of morning glory: 朝顔日記) — also written by Chikamatsu Tokusô (for the puppet theater in 1832).
The story is set in motion when Asojirô meets Akizuki Miyuki along the Uji River, a popular site for viewing and hunting fireflies during the evening cool of the summer months. They quickly fall in love, and he inscribes a poem for her on a fan about a morning glory (asagao: 朝顔). Later, when they must part, she returns the fan as a keepsake. Asojirô then takes a new name, Komazawa Jirozaemon, after he is adopted by a wealthy family serving the same daimyô (lit., "great name": 大名) as the lord of Miyuki's family. Confusion ensues when he, as Jirozaemon, asks Miyuki's father for her hand in marriage. Mistakenly thinking her father will force her to marry a "stranger," Miyuki falls into despair and runs away.
Months pass and Miyuki, now a beggar blinded by tears and grief, barely survives by playing the koto. Fondly remembering the poem, she calls herself Asagao. Asojirô coincidentally stops by an inn and finds the fan poem he wrote for Miyuki. When he learns that it belongs to "Asagao," he realizes she must be Miyuki. When Asojirô departs on his lord's business, he leaves Miyuki some money, medicine to restore her sight, and the keepsake fan upon which he has added his explanation for changing his name. After Miyuki learns the full story, she rushes after him, but there is a terrible storm and she is unable to overtake her lover. Having lost Asojirô a second time, she is about to drown herself when she is stopped by one of her father's retainers who has been continuously searching for her. She finally takes the medicine, whereupon her sight and former beauty are restored.
The scene presented here portrays Miyuki holding the fan with Asojirô's inscribed poem while he stands beside her.
In 1/1814, Kichisaburô played the roles of Miyagi Asojirô and Okitsu no Nisa in the premiere of Keisei tsukushi no tsumagoto, staged in Osaka at the Kado no Shibai. He then traveled to Kyoto in 4/1814, reprising his roles with the same cast of actors at the Minamigawa no Shibai.
The text at the far upper right reads ni-no-kawari ("second change:: 二の替り), designating the New Year kabuki program in Osaka and Kyôto during the Eighteenth Century. This was the second program produced after the kaomise (face showing or introduction of actors for the new theatrical season: 顔見世). The title of each ni-no-kawari play usually started with the word "keisei" (lit., "castle toppler" or courtesan: 傾城 also 契情 or けいせい) as a veiled reference to the Shimabara kyôgen (島原狂言) in the old days, that is, the prostitute-accosting routines of the Yarô kabuki (Young-man kabuki: 野郎歌舞伎) during the 1650s and the first years of the 1660s. These plays, which were set in the Shimabara pleasure quarter, were forbidden by the authorities in 1664.
Unlike the vast majority of surviving kappazuri-e, this impression retains much of its original color, with moderate fading of the purple and blue colorants, but good retention of the red and yellow.
References: KNP-5: p. 533 (staging at the Kado no Shibai) and p. 535 (staging at the Minamigawa no Shibai); 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.