The play Chôkoku hidari kogatana (A carving and a left-handed knife: 彫刻左小刀), whose title is given in the large red cartouche, is a kabuki version of the Pygmalion theme. Hidari Jingô falls in love with the high-ranking courtesan Oguruma Tayû (小車太夫) from the pleasure quarter in Kyoto. Later in his workshop, he proceeds to carve, in wood, a life-size doll. When he is finished, she looks a great deal like Oguruma. Pleased with his creation, he has his wife serve him a drink while observing the doll, which, to his amazement, walks out from the box he placed her in earlier. Jingô notices that she walks like a man and realizes he has unintentionally infused his masculine spirit into the doll. As it happens, he now possesses the real-life courtesan's mirror, so he hands it to the doll. In Japan, there is a saying, "A woman's mirror is her soul." Instantly, the doll begins to move in a natural feminine manner, taking on the gestures of a seductive courtesan. Elated, Jingô dances with her, but at one point separates the doll-Oguruma from the mirror, whereupon she reverts to a masculine spirit. When Jingorô hands the mirror back to her, she once again takes on the movements of a woman.
A likely influence was the earlier kabuki dance drama called Shiki no hina Asakusa hakkei (Playtime for a Hina doll, eight views of Asakusa: 時翫雛浅草八景), commonly called Kyô ningyô (Kyoto doll: 京人形), which premiered at the Kawarazaki-za (河原崎座) in 4/1847 in Edo. Nakamura Utaemon IV performed as Hidari Jingô and Onoe Baikô played the role of the spirit of the doll.
The reference in the 1865 play title to a "left-handed knife" refers to a later scene in which Jingô fends off enemies (disguised as carpenters) of the daimyô (feudal lord: 大名) he serves. They are after his lord's daughter (who has been hiding at Jingô's residence). After suffering a wound in his right arm, Jingô continues to fight by holding the knife in his left hand as the villains go after him with various carpenter's tools.
There was a purported real-life Hidari Jingô, although his actual existence has been a matter of controversy. Legend has it that he was a highly skilled sculptor working around 1596-1644 who can be credited with many famous deity sculptures throughout Japan. He was also celebrated for his animal sculptures — one being the nemuri-neko (sleeping cat: 眠り猫 or 眠猫) at Tôshô-gû Shrine (日光東照宮) in Nikkô. One tale claims that envious rival sculptors cut off Jingô's right arm in an attempt to stop him, but he happened to be left-handed and so continued to carve his masterpieces.
Hironobu's triptych depicts the moment when the carved Kyoto doll emerges from her storage box to the amazement of Hidari Jingô. Note, as well, the menagerie of animal carvings just beyond the doll's storage box. The background fabric pattern celebrates the craft of textile dyeing long associated with Kyoto, used here as an eye-catching design element.
This charming triptych is preserved in an excellent state, with fine colors and metallic faux-gold (copper-rich brass). The slight tarnishing on Jingô's robe is due to de-oxydation of the blue — a very common characteristic of that particular colorant (it is not considered "damage") that is often found on ukiyo-e prints. Unquestionably, this Hironubu triptych is a very desirable late-period Osaka print published just before the widespread introduction of aniline dyes.
References: IKBYS-III, no. 429