Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (Mirror of learning & transmitting Sugawara's secrets of calligraphy: 菅原伝授手習鑑), originally written for bunraku (puppet theater: 文楽) by a quartet of playwrights in 1746, was adapted for kabuki in 1747. It 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 (Fujiwara no 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 in succession. 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.
This scene appears to be from Act I when Yae and her husband Sakuramaru secretly arrange a tryst for Prince Tokiyo, younger brother of the Emperor, and Lady Kariya, adopted daughter of Sugawara. The action takes place along the bank of the Kamo River, where Sakuramaru and Yae have just persuaded Kariya to join the shy prince inside his carriage. Not long after, Kiyotsura (a retainer of Fujiwara no Shihei) and his men confront Sakuramaru regarding the prince's whereabouts. As they attempt to search the carriage, Sakuramaru fends them off and chases them away while the young lovers slip away unnoticed. Yae returns with a water bucket (for the lovers' ablutions after lovemaking), dropping it when she learns of the couple's escape. Sugawara then runs off in the hope of finding the lovers before their behavior brings disgrace upon both their families.
Another impression of this design was used for the cover (left sheet) of the early monograph on Osaka prints titled Kamigata ukiyo-e nihyakunen ten (Exhibition of 200 years of Kamigata ukiyo-e, 1975) by Matsudaira Susumu (Riccar Art Museum), where inside the entire diptych is illustrated as no. 99. This is a rare design known in only a few impressions.
References: WAS-IV, no. 297; Stanleigh Jones. Jr.(ed. and trans.), Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. (This is the bunraku or puppet version.)