Shika no ryôan tengu no sekurabe translates roughly as "The sacred mountain on four sheets — Comparing the heights of braggarts." The characters reading tengu mean "heavenly dog," a goblin of great strength and cunning who is often depicted with a long nose and said to live in mountain forests, especially among sugi (Japanese cedar or cryptomeria). Tengu were feared because they reputedly carried off humans to unknown places. However, tengu was also slang for someone who boasts or is prideful (here intended to signal good-natured ribbing aimed at actors and their ambitions). Sekurabe (comparing the heights) refers to the ongoing competition among the actors to reach the highest ranks in the theatrical world.
Sadahiro's composition celebrates the Japanese fondness for comparisons and puns. The idea here is that all the actors are climbing a sacred mountain as a metaphor for working hard in their theatrical careers, pleasing their fans, and competing with other performers. Thus the tortuous and sometimes steep mountain paths serve as tangible representations for the pitfalls awaiting the actors in their climb to the top of their profession. The long text is full of clever expressions and witty word plays based on these conceits. No doubt, some of the commentaries, as well as selected attitudes and actions on the part of the figures, held meanings intelligible only to participants "in the know" within the Kamigata theatrical world during the waning years of the Edo period.
Four actors have reached the upper height of Ryôan (also read as Reizan) on the third sheet from the right. They are (R to L) Mimasu Daigorô V, Nakamura Jakuemon I, Onoe Tamizô II, and Jitsukawa Gakujûrô II. They each strike an aragoto ("wild business") pose, implying victory and not a little pride. Another actor (Ichikawa Ichizô III) just below this group of four is making a bold attempt to climb a nearby peak without the advantage of taking a footpath. Kataoka Gatô II, however, enjoys a more privileged route as a passenger in a kago (palanquin or "vehicle basket") carried rapidly by two hapless disciples and Kataoka-clan members, Tonosuke I and Korokurô II.
The inscriptions tell us, among other things, that younger actors have the energy to excel and should they fail, well, shame on them! We are reminded that no women are allowed (women did not perform on the kabuki stage). Fans function as "walking sticks" (the support of individual fans and fan clubs, hiiki renchû, was critical to an actor's career; this was also a pun on the image of fans serving as walking sticks called shakujo, which were carried by some tengu). We learn that actors gain much needed strength from shûmei (name-changing ceremonies often marking an actor's ascendency to a more illustrious stage name or geimei). We are cautioned that the path is difficult, with sudden shifts in terrain, and that the ascent requires a lot of sweat. Unfortunately, good genes are not enough to succeed (all actors must therefore work very hard, regardless of their lineage), and the danger of falling is always great (a hard lesson learned by Asao Tamejûrô IV, who is in free fall at the far right, just above the torii or Shintô shrine gate). Although there are many places (that is, professions) to climb in Japan, Ryôan or Reizan (the sacred mountain here symbolizing an acting career) provides the ultimate in wish-fulfillment.
Despite the small dimensions of each figure in this tetraptych, the physiognomies of the actors are intended to be nigao ("likenesses"), simplified to be sure, given the constraints of the composition, but nevertheless distinctive. The profusely populated mountain (there are 65 actors depicted) offers an entertaining snapshot of the active roster in Kamigata kabuki during the mid-1860s.
1st Right Sheet: Ôtani Tomomatsu I, Jitsukawa Enjaku I, Arashi Hinasuke VII, Jitsukawa Shachizô I, Arashi Gisaburô I , Nakamura Tomosa II, Arashi Tokusaburô IV, Arashi Rikaku I, Nakamura Sôjûrô I, Asao Tamejûrô IV, Nakamura Umenosuke I, Arashi Wakitsu I, Nakamura Hashinosuke II, Jitsukawa Ensaburô II, Mimasu Gennosuke IV, Kataoka Tsuchinosuke I, Ichikawa Ennosuke I, Fujikawa Kanekurô II, Jitsukawa Kikuzô I, and Arashi Kichiemon I.
2nd Right Sheet: Onoe Shoroku, Nakamura Nakasuke II, Ichikawa Takijûrô II, Asao Asatarô I, Kataoka Tonosuke I, Kataoka Gatô II, Kataoka Korokurô II, Jitsukawa Yaozô I, Nakamura Shibazô II, Ichikawa Ichijûrô II, Onoe Taizô I, Nakamura Katsuemon I, Arashi Kyoka I, Asao Tamaroku I, Ichikawa Udanji I, Asao Okuyama III, Arashi Kanemon I, and Arashi Shagan II.
3rd Right Sheet: Mimasu Daigorô V, Nakamura Jakuemon I, Onoe Tamizô II, Jitsukawa Gakujûrô II, Ichikawa Ichizô III, Nakamura Kanjaku III, Ichikawa Yonezô III, Kataoka Shimanosuke II, Ichikawa Jûtarô I, Kataoka Rojaku I, Arashi Minshi IV, Arashi Eijirô I, Arashi Kaoru I, and Fujikawa Kayû IV.
4th Right Sheet: Nakamura Sennosuke I, Ogino Senjô I, Arashi Daizaburô IV, Arashi Tomisaburô III, Ichikawa Suminojô I, Ichikawa Fudenosuke I, Onoe Taminojô I, Jitsukawa Yujirô III, Segawa Otome II, Nakamura Shijaku I, Kataoka Matsutarô I, and Arashi Sankô I.
This is a rare design known currently in only a handful of complete impressions, and rarer still when preserved in such good condition.
References: IKBYS-III, no. 108