Tenmangû natane no gokû (The rapeseed offering at the heaven filling shrine: 天満宮菜種御供) premiered in 4/1777 as an adaptation of earlier plays based on the life and legends surrounding Sugawara no Michizane (菅原の道真 845-903), a celebrated scholar, poet, statesman, and calligrapher who ran afoul of the ruling Fujiwara (one of the four great clans of Japan, the others being the Tachibana, Minamoto, and Taira). He died in exile, but in 987 was deified as a Tenjin or "heavenly deity" (hence plays about him are called Tenjin mono, 天神物). In the main thread of the drama, Fujiwara no Tokihira 藤原ノ時平 (Fujiwara no Shihei, 藤原ノ時平) is a high-ranking courtier plotting to overthrow the emperor. Through deceit he gains Sugawara's trust, then frames him for the conspiracy. (Tokihira reveals the full extent of his evil character in a celebrated and unusual scene called warai no maku or "laughing curtain," in which he utters a cruel laugh as the curtain is drawn.) Sugawara is exiled to Kyûshû, where he finally learns of Tokihira's treachery. After offering his prayers, he becomes a thunder god and sends his spirit back to the capital to kill Tokihira.
A variation of this tale was presented in an earlier related drama for the puppet theater in 1746, Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (Mirror of learning & transmitting Sugawara's secrets of calligraphy: 菅原伝授手習鑑), one of the greatest of all puppet (and kabuki) plays. Sukune Tarô (宿祢太良), an ally of Fujiwara no Tokihira (Shihei) who is aiding the courtier in the plot against Sugawara no Michizane (Kan Shôjô 菅相丞), intends to assassinate the statesman. When Tarô's wife Tatsuta no Mae (立田の前) attempts to talk him out of his treachery, Tarô kills her and hides her body in a pond. Tarô's intrigue fails, and upon the discovery of Tatsuta no Mae's body, he is identified as his wife's murderer because he had foolishly torn a piece of cloth from his sleeve to use as a gag on his wife. In due time, Tarô is slain.
The conspiratorial courtier Fujiwara no Tokihira (藤原ノ時平) poses at the top of stairs within a palace. He wears elegant ministerial robes and a black eboshi (lit., "bird hat": 烏帽子), tall head gear made of paper or silk, stiffened with black lacquer and secured by a silk cord, in a style called kanmuri ("crown": 冠), common to courtiers in kabuki jidaimono ("period pieces" or history plays: 時代物). Behind him is a decorative scalloped golden cloud whose surface is suggestive of metallic-flecked Japanese paper.
It is obvious here that Sadahiro was experimenting with strong diagonals in his composition. The long courtier robes trail down the stairs in parallel with the black railing. Opposing diagonals appear in the walls just visible at the middle left, as well as the edges of the stairs.
The preservation of colors in this impression is excellent.
References: IKBYS-III, no. 101