Tenmangû natane no gokû (The rapeseed offering at the heaven filling shrine: 天満宮菜種御供) premiered in 4/1777 as an adaptation of earlier plays based on the life and legends surrounding Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), a celebrated scholar, poet, statesman, and calligrapher who ran afoul of the ruling Fujiwara (one of the four great clans of Japan, the others being the Tachibana, Minamoto, and Taira). He died in exile, but in 987 was deified as a Tenjin or "heavenly deity" (hence plays about him are called Tenjin mono, 天神物). In the main thread of the drama, Fujiwara no Tokihira (Shihei) is a high-ranking courtier plotting to overthrow the emperor. Through deceit he gains Sugawara's trust, then frames him for the conspiracy. (Tokihira reveals the full extent of his evil character in a celebrated and unusual scene called warai no maku or "laughing curtain," in which he utters a cruel laugh as the curtain is drawn.) Sugawara is exiled to Kyûshû, where he finally learns of Tokihira's treachery. After offering his prayers, he becomes a thunder god and sends his spirit back to the capital to kill Tokihira.
A variation of this tale was presented in an earlier related drama for the puppet theater in 1746, Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (Mirror of learning & transmitting Sugawara's secrets of calligraphy: 菅原伝授手習鑑), one of the greatest of all puppet (and kabuki) plays. Sukune Tarô, an ally of Fujiwara no Tokihira (Shihei) who is aiding the courtier in the plot against Sugawara no Michizane (Kan Shôjô), intends to assassinate the statesman. When Tarô's wife Tatsuta no Mae attempts to talk him out of his treachery, Tarô kills her and hides her body in a pond. Tarô's intrigue fails, and upon the discovery of Tatsuta no Mae's body, he is identified as his wife's murderer because he had foolishly torn a piece of cloth from his sleeve to use as a gag on his wife. In due time Tarô is slain.
Very little is known about the artist Toyohide. His family name was Kitagawa, and he also used the geimei (art names: 芸名) Ichiryûtei and Isshintei. He was active from 1838 to 1843, a few years before and a year after the start of the Tenpô kaikaku (Tenpô Reforms: 天保改革) of 1842, edicts that virtually halted print production in Osaka for nearly five years. Occasionally his signature appears within a toshidama-style cartouche ("New Year's jewel" or "New Year's gift" 年玉, a type of year seal used as the crest of the Utagawa school of artists), suggesting a connection with the Edo-based artist Utagawa Kunisada (歌川國貞 later Toyokuni III 豊國 1786-1865), although his use of "Toyo" (豊) in his name precedes Kunisada's official adoption of the Toyokuni name in 1844, which suggests to some scholars that Toyohide might have had a connection with Utagawa Toyokuni I (歌川豊國 1769-1825) more than a decade before Toyohide's first known prints.
This is a very well-printed design, with metallic pigments and a robe patterned with images of the popular Daruma (達磨) tumbler doll (Daruma was the Indian monk who founded the Ch’an or Zen sect of Buddhism in the sixth century AD), and Ofuku ("Good fortune": 御福), a mask of a smiling older female face thought to be a charm for good luck and longevity. Also included in this dazzling array of colorful designs are bamboo, rabbits, a cat, a carp (koi, 鲤), a butterfly, a hobby horse, a fox, and pinwheels. Gadô II is placed against a decorative background of simulated gold-flecked washi.
Toyohide's documented designs, which number only around a dozen, are rarely encountered, even more so with excellent color, as here.
References: IKBYS-III, no. 214; Tokyo Metropolitan Library