Umegawa-Chûbei mono (plays about Umegawa and Chûbei: 梅川忠兵衛物) recount a tale of ill-fated lovers that has remained popular to this day. The seminal theatrical production was Chikamatsu Monzaemon's (1653-1725) shinjû mono (love-suicide play: 心中物) for the puppets — Meido no hikyaku (Courier for hell: 冥途の飛脚) at the Takemoto Theater, Osaka in 3/1711. It was based on a notorious, real-life event that took place in late 1710 (the details are now lost). Much of the language in Chikamatsu's drama is admired for its lyricism and expressiveness. At one point, the narrator prepares the story's ending by referring to the lovers as birds caught in a snare and declaring that they were doomed not to escape. Meido no hikyaku was soon adapted by Ki no Kaion in 1713 as the puppet play Keisei sando gasa, while a pair of playwrights, Suga Sensuke and Wakatake Fuemi, wrote Keisei koi no hiyaku in 1773, also for the puppets. Kabuki put forward its first entry around 1757 in Osaka at the Nishi no Shibai. Koi no tayori Yamato ôrai (The loving wife and the varicolored rope: 恋飛脚大和往来) is the best known of several kabuki reworkings of the tragic tale of the lovers Chûbei and Umegawa.
In one version of the tale, Kameya Chûbei, aged 24, is the son of a wealthy farmer in the village of Ninokuchi in Yamato province. He earns his livelihood as a postal courier in Osaka. In love with the low-ranking courtesan Umegawa, aged 22, from the Izutsuya brothel in the Shinmachi pleasure quarter in Osaka, Chûbei, in competition with a wealthy merchant and love-rival named Tanba no Hachiemon, steals 300 gold ryô from Edo clients to ransom Umegawa. They flee, but nearly run out of money after 20 days. They go into hiding in Ninokuchi where Chûbei's father, Magoemon, still resides, but the lovers are eventually captured and executed. In some theatrical versions, they commit shinjû (double suicide: 心中).
According to a tsuji banzuke ("cross-street playbill": 辻番付) or an advance publicity kabuki playbill in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (11.28066 and 11.28270), the day's program also included the drama Koi bikyaku yamato ôrai (恋飛脚大和往来); plus a jôruri piece (浄瑠璃 dance with musical accompanient) titled Michiyuki kokyô no hatsuyuki (道行故郷の初雪) that was performed in the Tomimoto and Kiyomoto styes.
The moment depicted by Kunisada comes from the scene called Ninokuchi Mura (Ninokuchi Village). It is a cold, snowy day in the eighth lunar month, as indicated by the painted screen behind Chûbei on the right sheet. He watches his father Magoemon as the older man glances at Umegawa, at this point not knowing who she is. Umegawa offers to mend, by rolling up tightly one sheet from the wad of the paper she is holding, a damaged thong on one of his clogs, which a moment before had caused him to fall heavily into the snow.
This design is fascinating for its inclusion of two Takemoto-style (竹本) chanters and two shamisen (三味線) players on the tokodai (raised musician's dais) visible behind the actors. Such kabuki scenes are relatively uncommon and this example is especially well done. The janôme-gasa (snake's eye umbrella: 蛇の目傘) held by Magoemon serves as a psychological stage prop, as it separates Chûbei from the encounter between Magoemon and Umegawa. The Takemoto chanters sing: "The filial duty of a daughter-in-law / to give comfort to an old man in need / is a source of great happiness." When the lovers finally take their leave from Magoemon, the chanters bring the sad drama to a close: "Shedding tears of blood / at their eternal parting / rest in peace, / tears fall upon tears in this floating world."
Another impression of this triptych is illustrated in the Brandon and Leiter ref. cited below.
- See our Kunisada I Biography.
- Also see https://viewingjapaneseprints.net/texts/ukiyoe/kunisada.html.
- There is also a website devoted to Kunisada: http://www.kunisada.de/index.htm.
- Brandon, James and Leiter, Samuel: Kabuki Plays on Stage: Vol. 2, Villainy and Vengeance, 1773-1799. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002, pp. 284-285.
- Leiter, Samuel: New Kabuki Encyclopedia — A Revised Adaptation of Kabuki jiten. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997, p. 341.
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (11.28066 and 11.28270) for the tsuji banzuke.
- Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum, nos. 101-3246, 101-3247, 101-3248.
There are many book publications on the works of Kunisada. A good introduction in English is by Sebastian Izzard (with essays by J. Thomas Rimer and John Carpenter): Kunisada's World. New York: Japan Society in collaboration with Ukiyo-e Society of America, 1993.