Ume no haru [hatsuharu] gojûsan tsugi (Plums in spring and the fifty-three stations: 梅初春五十三駅) embeds in its title a reference to the fifty-three post stations along the Tôkaidô road connecting Edo with Kyoto, a popular theme for landscape prints, especially those of the Edo artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). When this Sadanobu design was produced, Onoe Kikugorô III (1784-1849), a celebrated Edo actor, was performing in Osaka between 11/1840 and 1/1842. (For more about Kikugorô III and a memorial print depicting him in another role from the same play, see KMS20).
Onoe Kikugorô III was one of the greatest kaneru yakusha (all-around actors: 兼ねる役者) in kabuki history. His stage rivalry with Ichikawa Danjûrô VII (1791-1859) pitched the fans of both actors into spirited competitions, each coterie claiming that its hero was the greatest actor of his generation. Kikugorô's alliance with the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV (1755-1829) resulted in the best known of kabuki's kaidan mono (ghost plays: 怪談物), when in 7/1825 Kikugorô premiered the role of Oiwa in Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (Tôkaidô ghost story at Yotsuya: 東海道四谷怪談).
Ume no haru [hatsuharu] gojûsan tsugi premiered in 1835 as an adaptation of the 1827 play Hitori tabi gojûsan tsugi (Traveling alone along the 53 stations: 独道中五十三駅) by the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV (1755-1829), creator of the best known kaidan mono (ghost plays: 怪談物). The star of the Hitori tabi premiere, Kikugorô III, had introduced the hugely popular role of Oiwa in Nanboku IV's Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (Tôkaidô ghost story at Yotsuya: 東海道四谷怪談) in 7/1825. Hitori tabi was written by a group of playwrights, including Nanboku's son, Tsuruya Nanboku V. Given the title, audiences might have expected a version of Jippensha Ikku's (十返舎一九, 1765–1831) best-selling comic novel Tôkaidôchû Hizakurige (東海道中膝栗毛, popularly known as Shank's Mare), but what they got instead was a spectacle of frightening scenes, along with erotic interplay and comic spoofing of Nanboku's favorite themes. Ume no haru, like its predecessor, included a monstrous demon cat, but also added a renegade priest who masters rat magic and a thief named Nezumi Kozô ("Kid Rat"). With these elements, the play qualified as a type of drama called neko sôdô mono ("cat-family dispute plays: 猫騒動物). The playwrights also added story lines from other kabuki and bunraku plots, transforming the famous greengrocer's daughter Oshichi into Sayoginu Oshichi and bringing in the dashing young samurai Shirai Gonpachi (白井権八) and his lover, the courtesan Komurasaki (小紫). With such a roster of fanciful characters and special effects (keren: "stunts" 外連), Ume no haru gojûsan tsugi became a long-running hit and inspired other plays featuring spectacular scenic effects
Kikugorô III performs as Usugumo no rei (the ghost of Usugumo: 薄雲の霊) as one of seven roles in the same play. Such a tour de force was called nanabake (Seven changes: 七変化 also called nana henge and shichi henge), a series of dances performed by a single actor who never leaves the stage and who takes on the roles, genders, and costumes of the different stage characters.
The poem, signed with Kikugorô's haigô (literary name: 俳号), "Baikô" (梅辜), has been translated by John Carpenter: Hototogisu / mayôte kitaru / koiji kana (The little cuckoo / flitting aimlessly / traverses the path of love.).* The cuckoo was considered, among other things, as a messenger from the spirit world. Here the anaology is with a lost soul seeking salvation.
This is a much sought-after ghost design by Sadanobu, offered here with very well preserved color and metallics.
References: IKBYS-III, no. 40; HSH, p. 27, no. 77; OSP, no. 193; KNP-6, p. 428; HKE, pp. 171, 232, 465, 670; * Ann Yonemura (ed.), Masterful Illusions. Washington, DC: Sackler Gallery, 2002, p. 186.