The "Six Immortal Poets" were ninth-century literary giants whose names were first linked together in the poetic anthology
"Collection of ancient and modern poems" (Kokin wakashû) in 905 AD. The roles depicted in Shigeharu's design come
from a dance play done in the manner of "transformation pieces" (hengemono) employing "quick-change techniques"
(hayagawari). It was first performed (in Edo) as "Six immortal poets in the guises of love" (Rokkasen sugata no irodori)
in 3/1834. A much earlier Osaka version called "Six poets in colorful attire" (Yosooi rokkasen) was staged in 1789 by Arashi
Hinasuke I (1741-96). Nakamura Shikan II, who plays the five male roles opposite the great onnagata Baika's (the haigô of
Nakamura Tomijûrô II) portrayal of Komachi, retained Hinasuke’s structure but had the play re-choreographed and set to new
music. The dances were fanciful mixtures of modernized domestic tales (mostly involving unrequited love for Komachi) and historical legends.
The demands on a single actor performing five separate roles were daunting — only the most highly skilled performers could portray,
in rapid succession, all the different personalities in convincing fashion.
This is a rare and exceptional work by Shigeharu and the master block cutter Kasuke, whose seal at the middle left reads Yama saiku Kasuke
(work by Yama Kasuke) — the top of the seal cartouche cleverly forming the character for Yama in the manner of a seal script. The
cutting and printing of this design are superb, with simulated woodgrain in the background and finely rendered lines throughout.
The Rokkasen were popular in series or, as here, in groupings on a single sheet. They also appeared frequently in analogue pictures (mitate-e)
featuring multiple layers of meaning blending the historical or legendary past with the contemporary or fashionable.
Note: Another impression of this design is featured in the 2005-06 exhibition and catalogue Kabuki Heroes on the Osaka Stage, 1780-1830
at the British Museum, Osaka Museum of History, and Waseda University Theatre Museum.
Okada Isajiro (岡田伊三次郎), a celebrated private Japanese collection not seen in public for more than 70 years until its gradual dispersal starting in the year 2000, a blockbuster event in the world
of kamigata-e; see KAM)
References: KHO, no. 273; KNP-6, p. 280; TWOP, pl. 46