Urashima Tarô (浦嶋太郎) was a young fishermen from Mizunoe whose 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 in the Dragon Palace under the sea until he becomes homesick. Otohime agrees to let him visit his home if he promises to return, giving him a small casket which 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. A white vapor is emitted, and he quickly ages and dies — for 300 years have passed while he lived under the sea.
Kotobuki shikisan (The felicitous Sanbasô ceremony: 寿式三) is one example among many of the dance called Sanbasô (Lit., Third old man: 三番叟), a ceremonial piece originally from the Nô theater, but adapted by the puppet and kabuki theaters for the first three days of kaomise ("face-showing": 顔見世) or ceremonial introduction of actors at New Year’s productions, as well as at celebrations for the opening of new theaters or forthcoming theatrical season (dances called Okina-watashi). The name comes from one of the three male characters in the Nô play (after the main and secondary figures, Okina and Senzai). Non-ritualisitc Sanbasô dances (Sanbasô mono) are known in perhaps more than 100 variations, all differing from the Nô version by making Sanbasô the main character and emphasizing his comic qualities (compared to the more dignified Okina). The Sanbasô dance also served as a felicitous daily introduction to nearly every kabuki program (in the latter case performed by low-ranking actors).
Degatari ("narrator's appearance": 出語り) is the the recitation or chanting of jôruri on the kabuki stage, in particular, scenes in which actors appeared on stage with both the chanters and the musicians in view. Before the late eighteenth century, the musicians and chanters sat out of view of the audience.
Bandô Hikosaburô V (1832-77) was an exceptional actor, a kaneru yakusha ("all-around actor": 兼ねる役者) who could play many types of roles in a most skillful manner. Unfortunately, he died at age 45, at a time that would be "mid-career" for the majority of kabuki actors. In Kunikazu's print he performs both roles in a hayagawari (quick-change technique: 早替り) in which sudden transformations of character were made possible by various tricks called keren (stunt: 外連). 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, and remain a staple of the kabuki repertoire to the present day.
Very few degatari-zu (narrator-appearance prints: 出語り図) are known from Kamigata artists in any period, thus making our deluxe-edition Kunikazu diptych a rare example.