Keisei Awa no Naruto (A courtesan at the Whirlpools of Awa: 傾城阿波の鳴門) of 1768, a ningyô jôruri (puppet play: 人形淨瑠璃), was a revision of Chikamatsu Monzaemon's puppet play Yûgiri Awa no Naruto (Yûgiri and the whirlpools of Awa: 夕霧阿波鳴渡) staged in 1712 at the Takemoto, Osaka. Chikamatsu's play was the first of the so-called Awa no Naruto mono (plays about Awa no Naruto: 粟の鳴門物) whose main theme featured the courtesan Yûgiri of the Ôgiya in the Shinmachi pleasure district in Kyoto. However, there was a subplot in some of these plays that is the subject of Kunishige's print design.
Awa no Jûrôbei is a samurai who is searching for his master's treasured sword. He moves from Awa to Osaka with his wife Ôyumi, leaving their infant daughter Ôtsuru in the care of her grandmother. In order to gain access to places where the stolen sword might have been hidden, he joins a gang of thieves. He has no luck, however, and the search goes on for 10 years. Then, when some of the thieves are arrested, Jûrôbei and Ôyumi prepare to flee. In the Dondoro Taishi no Monzen no ba (Scene of the temple town near Dondoro Taishi), as Jûrôbei and Ôyumi prepare to depart, Ôyumi hears the songs of a Buddhist pilgrim and the ringing of a bell. A young girl on a pilgrimage has called at the house. Ôyumi gives her an offering of rice and invites her in when she learns that the girl is from Awa, their home province, in search of her parents from whom she was separated when she was a small child. Realizing the girl is her daughter Ôtsuru, Ôyumi is torn between embracing Ôtsuru or maintaining her secret life to protect her child from becoming ensnared in their illegal affairs. Ôtsuru's devotion is heartrending, but Ôyumi decides to tell her unsuspecting daughter to go back to her grandmother and await her parents' return. When Ôyumi offers Ôtsuru some traveling money, Ôtsuru refuses, saying she has enough for the road. Ôyumi brushes the dust from Otsuru's robes and tenderly fixes a hairpin in her hair before the girl departs. In a famous and heart-felt scene, admired especially in the puppet version, Ôtsuru grabs a strip of cloth that Ôyumi is holding and tries to pull her mother toward her in a highly-stylized choreographed sequence. After Ôtsuru leaves, Ôyumi is grief-stricken. Finally, she resolves to go after her daughter.
The artist signing here as Kunishige (active c. 1847-55) is not the same as Nagasaki (Takigawa) Kunishige, the earlier name used from 1821 to 7/1826 by the well-known master Yanagawa (Ryûsai) Shigeharu (1802-52; active 1821-49).
The print title is given in the cartouches on all three prints: Chûkiden (Tales of righteousness and loyalty: 忠義傳), morally uplifting titles that artists of the period used for prints or series in the wake of the Tenpô kaikaku (Tenpô reforms: 天保改革) that had banned the publication of actor prints from 1842-1847. These titles amounted to mere transparent camouflage — no one, including government censors, was fooled into thinking that these images were anything but actor prints. Even so, the gesture helped satisfy the letter of the law. Note, too, that actor names are not given on the print, a small price to pay to side-step government penalties, as ukiyo-e patrons knew all the stylized ukiyo-e physiognomies of the actors and were intimately familiar with current stage productions.
In Kunishige's design there is an unusual asymmetry between the middle and the right/left sheets. Accommodating two actors in the center, Kunishige also introduced chromatic changes to set this sheet apart. The polyptych is anchored in the usual fashion by locating the cartouches along the far right and left edges.
This triptych offers a dynamic tableau of the main protagonists in a deluxe printing emblematic of the finest Osaka prints in chûban format. There is also an effective sense of depth with the right sheet positioned as we have it, as Ôtsuru appears to be deep in the background behind Ôyumi.
Formerly in the collection of Martin Levitz, a well-known New York collector of kamigata-e.
References: IBKYS-III, no. 267; IKB-I, no. 3-126