Hime kurabe futaba ezôshi (Picture-book comparison of twin blades and the princess: 姫競双葉絵草紙) was first performed in 1800, one in a long series of jidaimono ("period piece" or history plays: 時代物) categorized as Oguri Hangan mono (or Oguri mono, "Oguri Hangan plays") for both the puppet and kabuki theaters going back to the 1660s. The plots in Oguri Hangan mono were based on various legends about the historical Oguri Hangan Daisukeshige (小栗判官大助重 1398-1464), son of a provincial lord who had been dispossessed of his estates by the Ashikaga clan. These tales also took inspiration from Chikamatsu Monzaemon's (近松門左衛門) 1698 puppet play Tôryû Oguri Hangan (Oguri Hangan in contemporary style: 當世流小栗判官) and the military chronicle Kamakura daizôshi (Great copybook of Kamakura: 鎌倉大絵双紙).
In bunraku and kabuki, the action is set typically during the Kamakura period (1186-1336) and features the master of Hitachi Castle, Oguri Hangan Sukeshige (小栗判官助重) and his wife, Terute (depending on the adaptation, Terute no Mae 照手ノまへ or Terute-hime 照天姫). Oguri's adventures follow many complicated paths, including political and military intrigues. One such episode involves Oguri's father Oguri Mitsushige, a provincial daimyô, who fails in his revolt against the ruling Ashikaga clan, whereupon father and son are forced into hiding. There are, as well, supernatural episodes, Oguri's death due to poisoning by Terute's father and brother, and his resurrection and revenge against his wife's family.
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 and print collectors hardly needed the inscribed names, as the physiognomies were easily identifiable and they would have been intimately familiar with current stage productions.
Japanese scholars have categorized this design as a mitate-e (an analog picture, meaning, in this instance, an imaginary performance or casting). Nevertheless, a date of circa 1848 has been suggested based on the style of portraiture and the actor involved in the play.
This print typifies the very fine carving and printing applied to the production of Osaka printmaking after the relaxation of the Tenpô kaikaku. The pigments possess a depth and nearly velvety quality when found well preserved, as in our example.
This impression is from the celebrated Haber Collection, New York, although it is not illustrated in Schwaab, Osaka Prints (1989).
References: WAS-IV, no. 19; IKBYS-IV, no. 35