Shôutsushi asagao banashi (Recreating the True Story of Morning Glory: 生写朝顔話) was one of a number of theatrical dramatizations of a very popular love story. A successful puppet play was written by Yamada no Kagashi (Chikamatsu Tokusô) and staged at the Takemoto Theater, Osaka in 1/1832 (later adapted by kabuki). One of the better known versions (in addition to an early illustrated book) was the play Shôutsushi asagao nikki (Recreating the true diary of morning glory: 生写朝顔日記) by Chikamatsu Tokusô (originally 1812). The tale features the love between Miyagi Asojirô and Akizuki Miyuki, daughter of a wealthy samurai, who first meet while enjoying an outing in pleasure boats on the Uji River. They are immediately smitten with one another and exchange vows, but afterwards a misunderstanding leads Miyuki to believe that her father will force her to marry someone else. Unknown to her, the would-be bethrothed is actually Asojirô using an alternate name. To keep her pledge to Asojirô, she runs away and assumes the name Asagao ("Morning Glory," a reminder of a poem Asojirô had written for her). After months pass, Miyuki loses her sight from endless grieving, barely supporting herself by playing the koto (stringed instrument, resembling a horizontal harp: 琴). Coincidentally, Asojirô discovers Miyuki at an inn, but he cannot remain, as he must quickly depart on business for his lord. He leaves medicine to treat her blindness, but it is only after her near suicide over separating from Asojirô once again that Miyuki takes the palliative and restores her sight.
The series title, Honchô gishinden (Tales of honor and fidelity in our country: 本朝義信傳), is inscribed in the carotuche at the upper right. It is one of various similar titles that artists (and publishers) used on prints in the wake of the Tenpô kaikaku (Tenpô reforms: 天保改革) banning the publication of actor prints from 1842-1847. These print or series labels amounted to bit of transparent camouflage — no one, including government censors, was fooled into thinking that these images were anything but actor prints; still, the gesture helped satisfy the letter of the law. Note, too, that the actor's name is not given on the print, a small price to pay to sidestep reform penalties, as ukiyo-e patrons already knew the physiognomies of the actors and were intimately familiar with current stage productions.
Art historians are forever searching for documentary evidence about the lives of artists. Occasionally woodcut prints provide such information, as is the case here with the signature Sadamasu aratame [changing to] Kunimasu (貞廣改國升), thereby announcing that Sadamasu had changed his name to Kunimasu.
The series title cartouche is drawn in the form of a toshidama ("New Year's gift: 年玉), the crest of the Utagawa school of ukiyo e artists in Edo, as an acknowledgement that Kunimasu studied for a brief time with Utagawa Kunisada I (一代 歌川國貞) in Edo, probably sometime between 8/1828 and 3/1830.
Our impression has fine color and unusually large margins. Moreover, such well-preserved prints have almost always survived pasted within albums, yet this impression is one of those rare examples — a never-been-backed chûban in near pristine condition,
References: IKBYS-III, no. 149; NKE, p. 603; Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (RP-P-2009-140); Jan van Doesburg Sadamasu web page