The play Sangoku daiichi nochi no kusemono (三國大市川対恋) was one of many so-called Tenjiku Tokubei mono (Plays about Tenjiku Tokubei: 天竺徳兵衛物) from the puppet and kabuki theaters. They featured adaptations of the Tenjiku Tokubei monogatari (Tale of India: 天竺徳兵衛物語) about a Korean-Japanese sailor who traveled far from Japan, a rare occurence during the Tokugawa period. They were based on the historical Edo merchant seaman Takamatsu Tokubei who entered the port of Nagasaki on a Dutch vessel in 1633 with a record of his adventures. Playwrights fictionalized these accounts into tales of treason, including intrigues against Japan's ruler, Mashiba Hisayoshi (the historical Toyotomi Hideyoshi), by Yoshioka Sôkan (the Korean warrior Moku Sokan), whom Tokubei joins in attempts to assassinate Hisayoshi. The supernatural is also introduced in the guise of Tokubei's learning the art of toad sorcery, but his magical powers are ultimately broken and he is destroyed.
The series title Chûkô bûyuden (Tales of courage, loyalty, and filial piety: 忠孝武勇伝) reflected the cautious approach taken by print publishers for years after the Tenpô Reforms (Tenpô kaikaku) of 7/1842. These edicts banned actor prints in Osaka, virtually halting print production in Kamigata for five years. A gradual weakening of enforcement ensued despite reiterations in 1844 and 1845 by the government of its intention to continue punishing violaters. Chûkô bûyuden is an example of the rather transparent use of didactic or moralizing series titles to endow a print with a loftier purpose. Another bit of camouflage was the omission of actor names (the cartouches carry only the role names and series title). Even so, theatergoers hardly needed the inscribed names, as the physiognomies were easily identifiable and they would have been intimately familiar with current stage productions.
The Edo-based actor Onoe Kikugorô III (1784-1849) was, along with Nakamura Utaemon III, one of the earliest recorded kaneru yakusha ("all-around actor": 兼ねる役者), actors who could perform, with notable skill, virtually any type of role. In 1825 the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV wrote for Kikugorô the celebrated role of Ôiwa in Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (Tôkaidô ghost story at Yotsuya: 東海道四谷怪談), the most popular of all kabuki ghost plays. Often championed by his fans as a rival of the Edo superstar Ichikawa Danjûrô VII, Kikugorô, after countless triumphs on the Edo and Osaka stages, retired in 1847, whereupon he opened a shop selling rice cakes (mochi: 餅). He returned to the theater as Ôgawa Hachizô I to perform the role of Gonpachi in 4/1848 (see HSD32). Four months later, after a tour in Nagoya, he settled in Osaka, but the following year fell ill while traveling the Tôkaidô and died at Kakegawa station.
This is the middle sheet of a triptych, and one of the finest examples we have ever seen. We also have an impression of the right sheet (see HSD12).
Special note should be made of the nunomezuri (fabric printing: 布目摺), a blind-printing or embossing technique in which a piece of cloth (often muslin or silk) is placed over an uninked block for the area to be printed and the pattern of the textile transferred by exerting heavy pressure with a baren on dampened paper. If the pattern is to be used in a color area (as with Hirosada's print illustrated here), the paper is first printed with the desired color, and then nunomezuri applied. The result is distinctive (see detail view above). Although many kamigata-e are finely printed works of art (far more so than the average print from Edo), only a small number include nunomezuri.
References: IKBYS-IV, no. 99