There are many variations on the tale of Yaoya Oshichi the greengrocer's daughter, first inspired by actual events in 1681-82. These adaptations are grouped under Oshichi Kichsa mono (pieces about Oshichi and Kichisa: おしち吉三物). She was the subject of utazaimon (ballads), novels, puppet plays (the first possibly in 1704) and kabuki productions (the first in 1706 in Osaka). One of the best known retellings was written by Ihara Saikaku (1642-93: 井原西鶴) not long after the incident; he included it in his Koshoku gonin onna (Five women who loved love: 好色五人女) in 1685.
In an early, apparently semi-historical account from the Tenna shôishû (Collection of amusing trifles, circa 1684-88), which describes a disastrous fire on the twenty-eighth day of the eleventh month of 1681 at the Daien Temple in Komagome, Edo, which spread to the Hongo district. Oshichi's family took refuge at the Shôsen-in temple, where she fell in love with a temple page named Ikuta Shônosuke. (It was common for citizens fleeing a fire to seek safety in the grounds of the large temples.) When the family house was rebuilt, Oshichi was forced to return home, and soon after, on the second day of the third month of 1682, she burned the house, hoping to move again to the temple and reunite with her lover. She was arrested and paraded around Edo with five other arsonists on the eighteenth day, and burned at the stake two days later. Shônosuke entered one of the monasteries of Mt. Koya the following month. (Penalties for arson were severe due to the incendiary nature of the city's wood-frame structures and the government's ever-present fears about social disorder. Warnings were posted everywhere, particularly hi no yojin, "Be careful with fire.")
In one partly fictionalized version, Oshichi, the daughter of a prosperous grocer, and her family were forced to move to a remote Edo district, Sashigaya, after their home in Hongo Komagome burnt down in one of the city's frequent fires. There, Oshichi fell in love with a young man named Sahei. Unfortunately, a disreputable character called Kichisaburô persuaded the gullible girl that if her house burnt down again, her family would be evacuated to Enjoji, where she could reunite with Sahei, so she set fire to her home, and much of the city was destroyed. In 1682, the authorities punished the 17-year-old Oshichi as a adult (minors were 15 years and under) by burning her at the stake at the execution grounds in Suzuga-mori.
In some later dramatizations, Sahei and Kichisaburô are conflated into one character, Kichisaburô, who is the son of a rônin and a young temple acolyte. He falls in love with Oshichi, and she with him, but Oshichi is pursued by a villain named Kamaya Buhei who manages to have her betrothed to him in exchange for money he has loaned the family to rebuild their home. Fearful that she will lose Kichisaburô to the unwanted marriage, she sets fire to her home and suffers the same fate as described in the earlier version.
Onoe Tamizô II (1799-1886; 尾上多見蔵), the son of a theater hairdresser, was a skillful dancer and versatile actor. He had a long, successful career and a devoted following in the middle theaters in Osaka from the 1920s (by 1833, he also performed in the larger theaters, such as the Kado and Naka). Tamizô studied with Onoe Kikugorô III in Edo for three years, then returned to Osaka in 1823. He tended to be a flamboyant showman and was short, overweight, and reputedly illiterate. (His weight problem is evident in portraits issued later in his career.) Nevertheless, there was a coterie of artists, led by Gatôken Shunshi, who were devoted to depicting Tamizô. Their drawing styles were similar, at times indistinguishable from one another.
Gatôken Shunshi (画登軒春芝) was a student of Shunkôsai Hokushû and the apparent leader of a subgroup of followers that included at least two other artists signing with the name "Shunshi" — Gakôken Shunshi (画好軒春枝 act. c. 1824-29) and Shunshi (春始 act. c. 1830s), who used different ideograms for "shi."
This is a rare okubi-e (large-head picture: 大首絵) by Shunshi, with an unusual black frame surrounding the bust portrait, and containing the role and actor names at the top right and the artist's signature at the bottom left. Oshichi's hair ornaments are patterned with the actor's crest.
The poem, signed "Shôchô" (Tamizô's haigô, 俳号, or poetry name), speaks of untrampled leaves in autumn and the blossoms of wild asters.
Provenance: 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)
References: NKE, p. 151