In Japanese folklore the kitsune (fox: 狐) had the power to bewitch people, possess them, or take their human form (fox possession: 狐憑き or 狐付き). Among the best known fox tales were those recounting the life of Kuzunoha (葛の葉). The first theatrical drama was the puppet play Ashiya Dôman Ôuchi kagami (An imperial mirror of Ashiya Dôman: 蘆屋道満大内鑑) in 1734 in Osaka. Kabuki’s premiere followed in 1737 in Edo. Yomeiri Shinodazuma (The wedding of the wife from Shinoda Forest: 嫁入信田妻) is a later adaptation of the Kuzunoha tale.
In the central story, Kuzunoha was saved from hunters by Abe no Yasuna, a twelfth-century nobleman. The grateful fox, in the guise of a maiden (or in some versions a princess), marries him and bears a child named Dôji, who will grow up to become the renowned astrologer Abe no Seimei. In the end, Kuzunoha is compelled to reclaim her fox nature, and so, with much regret, she abandons her husband and son after writing a famous farewell poem. The two most admired episodes are the lamentation (kudoki: 口説) scene in which the fox prepares to her child and writes the poem, and the child-separation (kowakare: 小 分 か れ) scene when she looks upon Dôji for the last time.
In the original puppet drama, Yokanbei (Yasuna's true human servant) and Yakanbei (the fox-"Yokanbei" disguised in human form) were the first ningyô ("dolls," puppets: 人形) to which the present-day operation system assigning three puppeteers to one doll was adopted for ningyô-buri (doll movements: 人形振), invented by Yoshida Bunzaburô).
Yokanpei was a servant of Abe no Yasuna. In one scene, Kuzunoha conjures Yakanpei, the fox-döppleganger for Yokanpei who has taken Yokanpei's human form.
Kitsunebi (fox fires: 狐火), signaling the presence of a fox in human form (Kuzunoha), hover about the actors in this scene depicting Kuzunoha emerging from the kago (lit., "vehicle basket" or palanquin: 駕籠 or just 駕) alongside a row of flowering chrysanthemums.
For another scene drawn by Shigeharu for this same production, see SGH14.
The colors of our Shigeharu triptych are in a splendid state of preservation, most notably the pinkish-red beni (saffron: 紅) or benibana (紅花), one of the most fugitive colorants in traditional printmaking. The type used in ukiyo-e was known as saiku-beni ("craft beni"), which retained a small amount of the yellow dye component of the safflower blossom that was normally washed out when making hon-beni ("true red": 本紅) for dyeing and cosmetics.***
References: IKBYS-II, no. 142 (left and center only, faded); NKE, p. 26; MFAB (Museum Fine Arts, Boston), no. 11.36204a-c (partly faded); *** Henry Smith II ("Recreating Ukiyo-e: The art and Craft of Tachiharu Inuki," in: Impressions, no. 38, 2017, p. 157)