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Archive: Kunihiro s(國廣)

Nakamura Tsurusuke I [Utaemon IV] as Kotobuki Sanbasô and Urashima in Kotobuki shiki sanbasô, Kado Theater, Osaka
Kunihiro ga
No artist seal
Tenki (Tenmaya Kihei: 天満屋喜兵衞)
(H x W)
Oban nishiki-e
37.7 x 26.0 cm
Good color (slight fading); moderately good condition (slight soiling and a few light small marks; inexpertly filled-in wormhole middle bottom and a few other small wormholes filled and unfilled; rubbed spot below fan; some edges slightly uneven; crease center left)
Price (USD/¥):
Inquiry (Ref #KUH09)

Sanbasô may be read as "third old man," the name coming from one of three male characters (after the main and secondary figures, Okina and Senzai) in a ceremonial play originally from but adapted by jôruri and kabuki. Non-ritualisitc Sanbasô dances (Sanbasô mono) are known in perhaps more than 100 variations, all differing from the version by making Sanbasô the main character and emphasizing his comic qualities (compared with the more dignified Okina). The Sanbasô dance was associated with New Year theatrical productions; it also served as a brief felicitous daily introduction to nearly every kabuki program (in the latter case performed by low-ranking actors).

Urashima Tarô was a young fishermen whose very popular legend — dating back to before the eighth century — takes many forms. The most common version has Urashima catching a tortoise in his net, which he releases back into the sea. He later encounters the beautiful daughter of the Dragon King (a sea god), Otohime (Princess Oto), who was in truth the tortoise he had saved. They live together for three years in the Dragon Palace under the sea until he becomes homesick. Otohime reluctantly agrees to let him visit his home if he promises to return, giving him a mysterious casket that he must not open if he is to see her again. Once back on land, he fails to recognize anything, and bewildered, opens the casket. With the breaking of his promise, a white vapor is emitted, and he quickly ages and dies. Unknown to Urashima, 3 years under the sea paralleled 300 terrestrial years — a folkloric equivalent of Einsteinian relativity!


The first two lines of script written at the upper left (nearest the roundel portrait) include the words Shishô Utaemon isse ichidai ("Master Utaemon in a once in a lifetime performance"). This was a design intended for a much-anticipated retirement program by Utaemon III, the greatest Osaka star of his day. Much to the delight of his fans, however, his "sayonara" was postponed, although the production was staged.

The roles shown in this design were performed by Utaemon III's protege, Nakamura Tsurusuke I (who would become Utaemon IV in 1836 after adoption by Utaemon III). It was an honor for Tsurusuke to be a part of what was supposed to be a historic program, also serving to anticipate his eventual crowning with the Utaemon acting name (geimei).

The inscription at the middle right identifies this sheet as one in a series of five depicting roles from Utaemon's "farewell program" (nagori kyôgen). Kunihiro's four other designs from this set are illustrated in IBKYS-I and KNZ (see references below).

The roundel portrait shows Sanbasô in his distinctive lacquered, striped hat with the red disk representing the rising sun of Japan. Urashima is depicted with his iconographic fishing pole and casket as he raises a striped folding fan (ôgi). Both roles were performed as honorific gestures by Tsurusuke — meant to symbolize good fortune and long life for his master (shishô).


Okada (a celebrated private Japanese collection not seen in public for more than 70 years until its recent dispersal — a blockbuster event in the world of kamigata-e; see KAM).

References: IBKYS-I, no. 35; WAS I-4, no. 234; IKB-I, no, 1-437; KNP, vol. 6, p. 159; NKE, p. 547