Ono no Tofû aoyagi suzuri (Ono no Tofû, the inkstone, and the green willow tree: 小野道風青柳硯) offers a fanciful retelling of events involving the legendary calligrapher Ono no Tôfû [Michikaze] (894-966: 小野の道風) during the reign of the Emperor Yôzei (868-944). The historical Tôfû, grandson of a courtier-poet, Ono no Takamura, was a government official, poet, and calligrapher. In the latter capacity, he served three emperors and is considered one of the Sanseki (Three Brush Traces: 三跡), Japan's three greatest calligraphers. In Japanese legend and art, Tôfû is particularly well known as the figure who takes inspiration from a frog who attempted seven times to leap from a pond to an overhanging willow branch until finally reaching his perch on his eighth attempt. Likewise, Tôfû had tried seven times to win a higher post in the imperial court, and so he took the frog's perseverance as a sign that he, too, should try yet another time, and he is finally rewarded for his effort.
The play was written by Takdea Izumo I, Chikamatsu Hanji, Miyoshi Shôraku, and three others as a ningyô jôruri (puppet theater: 人形淨瑠璃) premiering in 1754 at the Takemoto no shibai in Osaka. With a mischievious twist, the dramatization depicts Tôfû as an illiterate carpenter reared as a commoner (the result of a crime committed by his father, an exiled imperial councilor). Tôfû works at the imperial palace, where he is promoted to courtier. A enemy of the emperor, Tachibana Hayanari, plots to take over the country. One day, Tôfû observes frogs leaping among willow branches in a temple pond, which he interprets as a sign that the emperor is in danger from Hayanari. When Dotsoku no Daroku, an ally of Hayanari's, attempts to recruit Tôfû into the conspiracy, Tôfû pretends to accept after the two fight and Tôfû tosses Daroku into the pond. When Tôfû is asked to sign a written affirmation of his loyalty to the planned usurpation of the throne, the illiterate Tôfû is able to do so only through a miracle initiated by his nurse Horinni, who sacrifices herself and dips a brush in her blood. In the end, Tôfû and his allies (including Daroku, who switches sides and helps to hide the emperor) defeat Hayanari and his co-conspirators.
Publishers were cautious for years after the Tenpô Reforms (Tenpô kaikaku), edicts that in 7/1842 banned actor prints in Osaka, virtually halting print production in Kamigata for five years. A gradual weakening of enforcement ensued despite reiterations in 1844 and 1845 by the government of its intention to continue punishing violaters. The print title, Honchô hyaku yûden (One hundred tales of courage in our country: 本朝百勇傳), is an example of the rather transparent use of didactic or moralizing titles to endow a print with a loftier purpose. Another bit of camouflage was the omission of actor names (the cartouches carry only the role names and print title). Even so, theatergoers hardly needed the inscribed names, as the physiognomies were easily identifiable and they would have been intimately familiar with current stage productions.
It appears that Sadamasu I changed his name to Kunimasu I as early as 1/1848. As this particularly dramatic okubi-e (large-head print: 大首絵) diptych was issued for a performance in 7/1848, we have attributed it to Sadamasu II.
References: TWOP, no. 61; NKE, p. 511