In the third lunar month of 1829, at the Kado Theater, Osaka, Nakamura Utaemon III (中村歌右衛門) performed a nanabake (seven changes, a series of dances performed by the same actor: 七変化) identified in the banzuke (theater program: 番付) simply as a shosagoto (lit., "pose business," i.e., a kabuki dance: 所作事). For this production Shigeharu designed a set of seven ôban sheets with the publishing shared by Tenki, Honsei, and Wataki. The sheets bear the artist's seal reading Ryû (柳), while the seal of the master carver hori Kasuke (ホリカスケ) appears on four of the designs, including our design shown above. Each sheet is titled Nanabake no uchi (Series of seven changes: 七変之内) and printed with a striking yellow background. The figures are drawn before a large design representing Utaemon III's kaemon (alternate personal crest: 代紋), a tsuru (crane: 鶴). This particular version of Utaemon III's kaemon is composed of five cranes arranged in a roundel with their necks and heads positioned toward the center of the crest and their wings at its edges. All the designs are inscribed with poems composed by Utaemon III, who signed with his haimyô (poetry name: 俳名), Baigyoku. The drawing of the figures is lively and assured, and the range of colors is typical for ôban designs of the late 1820s-1830s. The seven roles, each written on their respective sheets, were zatô (also amma, a blind masseur: 座頭), keisei ("castle toppler" or high-ranking courtesan: 傾城 or 契情), Narihira (courtier and poet Ariwara no Narihira, 在原業平, 825–880), shishi (lion: 獅子), Kaminari (god of thunder: 雷), yakko (servant or footman: 奴), and Shôki (a mythical demon queller: 鍾馗).
During the Edo period one of the traditional occupations for the blind was working as a zatô (also amma: 座頭), meaning a masseur as well as a shampooer, musician, or singer. The profession of massage operated under rules sanctioned by the shogunate and was, until the early Meiji period, controlled by guilds centered in Edo and Kyoto (tôdô or guild of blind men: 当道). Masseurs offered what was believed to be a curative medical technique, and many amma also treated their customers with acupuncture and moxa (cauterizing with dried herbs burned on the skin).
In Shigeharu's design the zatô dances with agility and grace despite his vision handicap. All the designs are inscribed with poems composed
by Utaemon III, who signed with his heimei (poetry name), Baigyoku. The present poem reads: Tobitatsuya / aita mitasa o / naku kaeru ("With a cry of joy the frog leaps to join its lover"), which probably alludes to the leaping style of choreography used for this zatô dance.
Four of the seven sheets in the series, including this one, bear the seal of Kasuke (hori Kasuke, or "cut by Kasuke"), one of Osaka's most brilliant block cutters (see detail at right). Prints with his seal are invariably cut and printed with exceptional skill, even when issued in non-deluxe editions, as here.
References: IBKYS-II, no. 118; KNZ, no. 470; IKB-I, no. 1-462; KNP-6, p. 213; RSQ, p. 121 and fig. 1b