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.
Notably, Utaemon III performed seven different roles in the 1/1823 production of this play.
This is an early example of an nishiki-e actor portrait set within a simulated woodgrain frame sporting metal mounts. It takes the form of an ema (votive panel: 絵馬) used to offer prayers at Shinto shrines. Although a few other examples with similar portrait backgrounds appeared over the next few decades, this type of design in ukiyo-e remained rather uncommon.
The poem was written by Shikan (芝翫 Utaemon's haimyô or poetry name: 俳名) and has been translated by John Carpenter* as: Spring has arrived / so I don flowery robes / and Kawachi cotton (Haru nare ya / Kawachi momen mo / hanagoromo).
References: IKBYS-I, no. 145; NKE, p. 615; * Anne Yonemura: Masterful Illusions: Japanese Prints in the Anne van Biema Collection. 2002, p. 152