Tenpôzan ("Mt. Tenpô: 天保山) was a large man-made hill, the result of a government-sponsored public works project begun in 1831-32, constructed by dredging the mouth of the Aji River at Osaka harbor and piling up the silt. Organizers produced various entertainments to bring in crowds of onlookers who would then walk about and compress the newly sodded landscape. The park turned out to be quite an attraction, not only because of the novelty of the effort, but also for its lighthouse, stone lanterns, teahouses, freshly planted cherry trees, and picturesque views of the harbor. As a result, the "mountain" was depicted for decades in a number of ukiyo-e designs, particularly fûkeiga (landscape pictures: 風景画). Tenpôzan remains today a popular waterfront resort.
We believe this print to be a mitate ("compare": 見立), or a likening of one thing to another — a sometimes metaphorical, often playful juxtaposition of the contemporary with the historical (either the recent or distant past), or the vulgar with the refined (zoku 俗 and ga, 雅). However, in kabuki prints, mitate almost always signifies an imaginary performance in which the actors portrayed did not perform their roles on the same stage at the time the print was published. In this instance Kunisada depicts Edo actors who performed in Osaka a year or two before Tenpôzan was actually built. Thus this is one of the many popular imagined moments that crop up in Osaka and Edo actor prints, as well in other printmaking genres (especially surimono, privately issued speciality prints, 摺物).
This design bears two interesting inscriptions. First, the title at the top of the middle sheet: Naniwa Tenpôzan han'ei no zu (浪花天保山繁栄ノ圖), or "Picture of a prospering Tenpôzan in Osaka," thus verifying that the actors are shown in private life, always a fascinating subject. Note that Iwai Shijaku I (一代目岩井紫若 1804-1845) maintains his persona as an onnagata (lit., "woman's manner": 女方 or 女形) away from the stage. This was a familiar attitude among these kabuki specialists, derived from the teachings of Yoshizawa Ayame (1673-1729), the greatest onnagata in the history of kabuki. Ayame believed that on-stage performances were nourished by off-stage preparation in an actor's private life. At the height of their popularity, onnagata became arbiters of fashion, which gradually led to the commercial exploitation of products intended to benefit from fan adulation. Women rushed to acquire items associated with or endorsed by onnagata, such as combs, hairpins, scarves, obi, cosmetics, clothing, and tea. Woodblock-printed scenes of Osaka's pop-culture icons off stage were eagerly sought after by their fans and collectors of ukiyo-e. The same is true today for examples featuring both Edo-based actors and Osaka-based actors.
The second inscription in small script at the extreme right reads Edo nobori ("going up to the capital from Edo": 江戸のぼり) — the capital during the Tokugawa period being Kyoto, although in the context of kabuki performance, as in Kunisada's print, it refers to Kamigata generally and Osaka specifically.
Hakuen II (二代目白猿) was the temporary acting name of the Edo superstar Ichikawa Danjûrô VII (七代目市川團十郎 1791-1859), who performed briefly in Osaka after fires destroyed all three theaters in Edo in 3/1829. His performances in Kamigata from 5/1829 to 4/1830 were quite a sensation, and fans filled the theaters to watch him perform. Depicting him away from the theaters, as here, would have set off yet another spark of interest among kabuki aficionados.
Dating this triptych: Mitate sometimes included anachronistic elements. In this instance, there may be two possibilities for dating this triptych. Most important, we need to explain the use of the temporary acting name "Hakuen" on a design depicting Tenpôzan. First, if Kunisada applied the name "Hakuen" accurately, then publication of the print would coincide with Danjûrô VII's performances in Osaka from 5/1829 to 4/1830 when he used "Hakuen" officially. Thus, the triptych would be a mitate-e, as Hakuen (Danjûrô VII) was actually back in Edo before Tenpōzan was completed. The second explanation would date the print to a short interval in 1834, when Danjûrô returned to Kamigata from 3/1834 to 5/1834; however, he did not use the Hakuen name for his second sojourn in Kamigata. Moreover, Iwai Shijaku I appeared in Kamigata from 11/1831 to 3/1835, and Nakamura Shikan IV acted in Kamigata from 11/1833 to 1/1838. Thus, if we accept that Kunisada might have inaccurately reused the Hakuen name, all three actors might have truly gathered together some time between 3/1834 and 5/1834.
This is a charming design with the fugitive color in the salmon-pink sky very well preserved.
References: Charles Dunn, Bunzô Torigoe (Eds., Trans.), The Actors' Analects, New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.