The play Shin Usuyuki monogatari (A new tale of Usuyuki: 新薄雪物語) was written for the puppet theater by a quartet of playwrights: Takeda Koizumo, Matsuda Bunkodo, Miyoshi Shoraku, and Kogawa Hanbei. First performed in 5/1741 at the Takemoto-za, Osaka, it was based on a 1632 novel Usuyuki monogatari concerning three swordsmiths (Munemasa, Kuniyuki, and Kunitoshi) and the love affair between Princess Usuyuki and Sonobe Saemon. There were earlier kabuki productions of the story that probably influenced the puppet version, and yet another kabuki adaptation took place at the Hayakumo no Shibai in Kyoto about three months after the Osaka puppet performance. Various plays on the story are called Usuyuki mono. Shin Usuyuki monogatari, a Ashikaga-period (1338-1573) historical drama, was the essential Edo-period version of the story, with performances given throughout the Edo and Meiji periods in the Osaka theaters. Considered a masterpiece of jidaimono (history play: 時代物), it is one of the few such dramas still performed today in its entirety.
The lovers Usuyuki-hime and Sonobe Saemon become enmeshed within a complicated conflict involving a shogun's ceremonial sword (made by Rai Kuniyuki). Tsumahei, a footman to Saemon, is assigned to perform a dedication of the sword, which is to be given to the Kiyomizu Temple on the behalf of the shogun. However, the villain and rival swordsmith Dankurô inscribes a curse on the sword to bring shame and ruin upon Saemon. Various intrigues follow, including charges that Usuyuki and Saemon were involved with the curse upon the sword (and therefore upon the shogun). Afterwards, the lovers' parents sacrifice their lives for their children, committing seppuku (ritual suicide: 切腹). Ultimately, Dankurô vows to mend his ways and allies himself with Usuyuki against the corrupt Akizuki Daizen, a rival suitor of Usuyuki and master to Dankurô.
This portrait might depict Tsumahei during a scene in which he fights off Shibukawa Toma, a retainer/servant to Akizuki Daizen. The tachimawari (fight scene: 立回り) is among the most admired in the kabuki repertoire.
Sadanobu's design is a splendid example of deluxe printing at the end of the 1840s. The placement of a rectangular enclosure around the actor and superimposed over a building or landscape view was a design conceit encountered occasionally during the post-Tenpô period by other artists, such as Hirosada, Enjaku, Kunikazu, and Yoshitaki. Here, it is most effective, with water pouring down from a stone conduit (or bridge) and falling cherry blossoms adding a dynamic element to the overall design. The dramatic thrusting of Tsumahei's hand past the frame is another graphic device found in the works of other artists of the period.
The preservation of faux-gold (copper-rich brass) is remarkable — most often there is moderate-to-severe rubbing off of metallic pigments, as they do not fully penetrate the paper as do more aqueous colorants and therefore are very prone to flaking off the paper surface.
This impression is from the celebrated Haber collection, New York City and is illustrated in Schwaab, Osaka Prints (See OSP below). Schwaab dates the print to 9/1849 at the Chikugo Theater, but we have used Prof. Matsudaira's date of 11/1849 at the Kyoto Shijô Kitagawa no Shibai, which appears in his monograph on the artist (see HSH below).
References: OSP, no. 216; HSH, no. 143; NKE, p. 593