Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (Mirror of learning & transmitting Sugawara's secrets of calligraphy: 菅原伝授手習鑑) 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 (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.
Actors such as stage idol Nakamura Utaemon III used clever techniques called hayagawari (quick-change technique: 早替り) in which sudden transformations of character were made possible by various tricks called keren. Hayagawari were made in view of the audience by a single actor (sometimes aided by stage hands). Clothing with specially sewn, loosely basted threads was pulled off or repositioned to reveal the costume for the next role. The actor would effect new voices, ages, genders, occupations, and body
language as he demonstrated his skill in a range of impersonations. Hayagawari had been popular on the kabuki stage as part of the genre known as henge-mono (transformation pieces: 変化物) since the early eighteenth century, and examples appear in Kamigata at least as early as 1816-1817. They were especially popular during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
The inscription at the middle right reads Nanabake no uchi (Series of seven changes: 七化之内), a group of rapid-fire roles performed with the play Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (Mirror of learning & transmitting Sugawara's secrets of calligraphy: 菅原伝授手習鑑). This jidaimono ("period piece" or history play: 時代物) premiered in 8/1746 as a ningyô jôruri (puppet play: 人形淨瑠璃) at the Takemoto no shibai, Osaka. It is one of the most admired of all puppet dramas, whose four authors also composed two other masterpieces in the 1740s, Kandehon chûshingura (Writing manual for the treasury of the loyal retainers: 假名手本忠臣蔵) and Yoshitsune senbon zakura (Yoshitsune and the thousand cherry trees: 義経千本桜).
The seven roles performed by Utaemon III were (right to left, top to bottom): Kan Shôjô (Sugawara), Shundô Genba, Chiyô, [Fujiwara no] Shihei, Shirodayû, Sukune Tarô, and Miyoshi Kiyotsura. As for the other roles, Genba is a henchman and envoy for Shihei; Chiyô is the wife of one of the Sugawara's triplet retainers, Matsuômaru (the other brothers were Sakuramaru and Umemaru); Shirodayû is the seventy-year-old father of the triplets; Sukune Tarô is the husband of Tatsuta no Mae, who is aiding Shihei in his intrigues; and Kiyotsura is employed by Shihei.
Hokushô (北松) signs here with his earlier name Shunchô (春頂). Active circa 1822-1832 and possibly a pupil of Hokushû, he was one of several printmakers signing "Shunchô," each with different kanji for "chô."
The preservation of color is especially fine in this impression, the vivid pink serving as an important design element, and the red and purple colorants virtually unfaded.
References: IKBYS-II, no. 175; NKE, p. 615