Kagamiyama kokyô no nishiki-e (A brocade picture of the birthplace at Mirror Mountain: 鏡山舊錦絵) is one of several Kagamiyama mono (Kaga Mountain plays: 鏡山物) dramatizing eighteenth-century rivalries within the Maeda clan in Kaga. Many were adaptations of a ningyô jôruri (puppet play: 人形淨瑠璃) also called Kagamiyama kokyô no nishiki-e from 1782 in Edo, from which the play illustrated here took its title. A slightly earlier Kyoto production was Kagamiyama kuruwa no kikigaku (A picture of the pleasure quarter at Mirror Mountain: 鏡山廓の写本) premiering in 1780. One of the better known Edo adaptations was Keisei Soga kuruwa Kagamiyama (Mirror Mountain and courtesan's Soga in the pleasure quarters: けいせい曽我廓鏡山), a play about two courtesans in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, Edo.
The main plot line was based on a real-life incident from 1724 when the maidservant Osatsu avenged the death of her mistress, Omichi, who had been driven to suicide after being struck by a sandal — considered a terrible insult — by a lady-in-waiting named Sawano. Other historical events said to have influenced theatrical retellings were the troubles in the Maeda family, rulers of the Kaga Province, in the 1740s and 1750s.
In typical fashion, theatrical adaptations changed the names of the protagonists. After the lady-in-waiting Onoe uncovers a plot to seize power from the shogun by an court woman named Iwafuji, the latter insults Onoe by striking her with a sandal. Onoe commits suicide, but only after revealing the conspiracy to her maid, Ohatsu. The dutiful maid foils the intrigue and kills Iwafuji with a sword, then symbolically beats the corpse with Onoe’s blood-stained sandal.
The scene depicted by Sadanobu is from Act II when the overbearing senior lady-in-waiting Iwafuji challenges the middle-aged lady-in-waiting Onoe to demonstrate her martial skills in a fight with bamboo swords, a sign of a true samurai woman. Iwafuji intends to ridicule Onoe, as she is the daughter of a wealthy commoner, not a court noble. Onoe's maidservant Ohatsu saves her mistress by fighting in her place (the swords can be seen at their feet), claiming that she learned everything from Onoe and is thus a worthy stand-in. This infuriates Iwafuji, who becomes more determined to destroy Onoe as she is an obstacle to her goal of controlling the clan. The beating with the zôri (straw sandals: 草履) takes place in Act III, and Onoe commits suicide in Act IV.
In a stunning example of inventive ukiyo-e design, this audacious triptych not only portrays the Act II scene but celebrates textile craft in Kamigata. A complex golden-yellow weave blankets the background, which is punctuated by large brocade forms floating across the sheets, representing words found in the play titles.
References: HSH, no. 30, pp. 21 and 118