The play 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 (Fujiwara no 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.
One of the unusual features in the drama are the triplets Umôemaru (梅王丸), Sakuramaru (桜), and Matsuômaru (松王丸), sons of Shiradayû, who was Kan Shôjô's seventy-year-old retainer. Their names derive from Shiradayû favorite trees: plum (ume: 梅), cherry (sakura: 桜 or 櫻), and pine (matsu: 松). Each son is a loyal retainer to one of the play's chief characters (Kan Shôjô, Prince Tokiyo, and Shihei, respectively.) The triplet's are performed with contrasting personalities and differing kumadori face makeup; Umôemaru is acted in the heroic aragoto-style (rough stuff: 荒事), Sakuramaru in the more gentle or romantic wagoto manner ("soft-stuff": 和事), and Matsuômaru in the fashion of villains (katakiyaku: 敵役 or more specifically, hagataki, evil retainers). The roles of the three brothers were inspired, so it is said, by the birth of triplets (a rare occurence in Japan) in the Tenma district of Osaka.
This design, a typically colorful production from Kunisada during his middle career (before he changed his art name to Toyokuni in 1844), includes on the middle sheet the Osaka actor Arashi Kichisaburô III (1810-1864) who took the name Kichisaburô in the first lunar month of 1821. He premiere acting stint in Edo began in 2/1839, so the present production of Sugawara denju took place only a year and a half after his arrival there. He returned to perform in Osaka in 1846, went to Edo again in 1850, and made his final return to Osaka in 1856, remaining in Kamigata until his death in 1864. He was a versatile actor who could command the stage in tateyaku (male roles, 立役), katakiyaku (villain roles, 敵役), and onnagata (female roles, 女方 or 女形), with katakiyaku being his particular specialty.
There are impressions of this triptych in the Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum and the Tokyo Metropolitan Library.