Sugoroku ("double sixes" or "pair of sixes": 双六 also 雙六) is a game played with a single die and counters, somewhat like backgammon (in Chinese, t'shu-p'u), in which the winner is the first player to reach the goal (agari) from the starting point (furidashi). Woodblock-printed sugoroku were a type of omocha-e (toy pictures: 玩具絵).
The title of this ôban diptych, Ukiyoe awase sanjûrokkasen (Floating-world prints compared with selected thirty-six poets: 浮世画合三十六歌撰), refers to selected poems compiled in the anthology Sanjûrokunin sen (Selections of thirty-six poets: 三十六人撰) by the minor poet and critic Fujiwara no Kintô (966-1041) around 1009-1011. Fujiwara collected the poems for the third imperial anthology (the Shûishû). Sanjûrokunin sen contained ten poems each by Hitomaro, Tsurayuki, Mitsune, Ise, Kanemori, and Nakatsukasa, and three poems each by Yakamochi, Akahito, Narihira, Henjô, Sosei, Tomonori, Sarumaru, Komachi, Kanesuke, Asatada, Atsutada, Takamitsu, Kintada, Tadamine, Saigû no Nyôgo, Yorimoto, Toshiyuki, Shigeyuki, Muneyuki, Sane-akira, Kiyotada, Shitagô, Okikaze, Motosuke, Korenori, Motozane, Kodai no Kimi (also read O-ô no Kimi), Nakafumi, Yoshinobu, and Tadami. The poets were popular subjects in ukiyo-e, especially in mitate-e (analogue or "likening" pictures: 見立絵), as with the present example.
The yakusha-sugoroku (actor sugoroku: 役者双六), also called shibai-sugoroku (theater sugoroku: 芝居双六) offered here is one of various types of sugoroku. In this example the goal in the center of the board encloses four poems from the 36 poets collection. The other texts inscribed in the backgrounds of the actor portraits are excerpts from song lyrics. Adjacent actors represent famous pairings that were very popular among theater fans.
Surviving sugoroku kamigata-e are rare, especially when in good condition and with excellent color, as in our example.