In the third month of 1829, at the Kado Theater, Osaka, Nakamura Utaemon III 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, while the seal of the master carver Kasuke (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 lemon-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 keisei ("castle toppler" or high-ranking courtesan: 傾城 or 契情), zatô (blind masseur: 座頭), Narihira, shishi (lion: 獅子), Kaminari, yakko (servant or footman: 奴), and Shôki.
Shishimai ("lion dances": 獅子舞) have ancient antecedents going back to early gigaku (dances of Chinese origin first introduced into Japan around the sixth – seventh centuries) when the word shishi also meant wild boar or deer and was associated with animalistic ceremonial dances and fertility rituals. Later minzoku geinô (folk dances) also contributed to the development of shishimai, and there were traditional lion dances given by street performers at the New Year. Such dances influenced the Shakkyô (lit., "stone bridge": 石橋) plays of the Nô theater. The actor Mizuki Tatsunosuke, who was the likely originator of nanabake, is also credited with helping to introduce the lion dance into the kabuki repertory, in particular by creating a nekomai (cat dance: 猫舞), which apparently evolved into a lion dance that took advantage of Tatsunosuke's acrobatic skills. The oldest surviving theatrical lion dance appears to be the Aioijishi ("Existing together") performed by Segawa Kikunojô I (c.1693 - 1749) in 1734, which featured a two-part dance, the first a courtesan or princess manipulating lion hand puppets or masks, the second a lion-dance madness scene. The lion dance was also popular in wakashu kabuki ("boy kabuki": 若衆歌舞伎), but by the 1770s the dominant female or effeminate aspect of the dance was ultimately forced to share the stage with far more masculine interpretations as the era of tachiyaku ("standing actor," male roles: 立役) introduced more acrobatic, animalistic, and explosive versions of the dance.*
In Shigeharu's design Utaemon III beats a okedô (small drum, or barrel drum) with two sticks as he raises one leg high in a stamping dance. Behind his head is a bright red shishigashira (lion head: 獅子頭) worn so that the actor's face remains visible. Although lion masks were originally made of wood (typically paulownia), on the stage they were often made from stiffened paper to limit their weight and facilitate dancing. From the back of the mask hung a shokoro, or long covering cloth, that the dancer could use to hide part of his body and enhance the illusion of a lion on the stage. Utaemon III's energetic interpretation of the shishi was consistent with the folkloric symbolism and masculine attributes of the lion. Just such an interpretation can be found in a jiuta (regional song: 地唄) from around the time of Utaemon III's performance, which included the phrase "… gorgeously, wildly, passionately, this lion also plays…." The poem on Shigeharu's design reads Haru no kari / mukai koyama o / koete yuku ("The wild goose returns in the spring to cross over the small mountain").
This is a fine, energetic design by Shigeharu, carved by the celebrated block cutter Kasuke; impressions are difficult to acquire in good condition.
References: IBKYS-II, no. 18, pp. 41-42 (complete set); WAS I-4, no. 395; KNP-6, p. 213; * RSQ, The Background text provided above was taken from our article "Ryûsai Shigeharu: 'Quick Change' Dances in the Utaemon Tradition." Fiorillo, John and Ujlaki, Peter. In: Andon, nos. 72/73, 2002, pp. 115-135.