Oshidori (Mandarin ducks: Aix galericulata) symbolize marital bliss and fidelity. They were said to mate for life and, if separated, perish from loneliness. Aratamaru oshika omoiba ("Thinking about how the mandarin ducks have changed") apparently served as a vehicle for the stage debut of the twelve-year-old Nakamura Tamashichi (1837 - 2/15/1860). The performance took place barely more than a year after the death of his father, Shikan III (1810 - November 1847). According to the scholar Roger Keyes*, the subject suggests that Tamashich's mother had also passed away around this time. Tamashichi would thus have been offering a eulogy to his deceased parents.
After this performance, Tamashichi became a young rising star in Osaka kabuki until he died prematurely at age 24. When he first became ill at age 21, theatre managers and fans worried that Tamashichi would be forced to retire and that attendance in the theaters would drop after the departure of so popular an actor. Desiring to please his fans, the dedicated Tamashichi continued performing. There followed an inexorable deterioration in his health until, after performing for 15 days in Hime kurabe futaba ezôshi ("Picture-book comparison of twin blades and the princess") given at the Shijô Kitakawa, Kyoto, 2/1860, he received "last day" gifts from his fans and retired to his dressing room in the evening, where he collapsed and died. The next day, Tamashichi's body was transported to Osaka for his funeral. At least 7 shini-e ("death prints": 死絵) were hastily produced, a high number for such a young Osaka actor, and the writers of hyôbanki ("actor critiques") composed tributes mourning a "flower dying before full bloom."
In this delightful composition, the actors are depicted as oshidori no seirei (spirits of Mandarin ducks: 鴛鴦の精霊) in one of the many oshidori-mono or Mandarin-duck dances produced during the Tokugawa period (all but one or two of these dances are no longer in the standard kabuki repertory).
Hirosada designed very few ôban triptychs and this one is an exceptional design from an early edition before the omission of some color blocks, overprinting, and the mountains in the distance. For this performance, Hirosada also produced an ôkubi-e ("large-head" or bust portrait) triptych in chûban format — see HSD21.
References: IKBYS-IV, nos. 153-154; HOP, p. 85, nos. 11-12*; EOM, p. 28