Hirosada, Nakamura Tamashichi I as the Spirit of a Mandarin Duck

Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 - 1864)  Nakamura Tamashichi I as the Spirit of a Mandarin Duck in the play Aratamaru oshika omoiba, 1849. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

This is one of three very famous prints. The image is perhaps one of the most well known of all Osaka prints in fact. Hirosada produced almost no oban prints and fewer still oban triptychs of which this is a surviving sheet. The print is a rare early edition, before the omission of some colour blocks, overprinting, and the mountains in the distance.

The print illustrates one of the many kabuki dances on the subject of mandarin ducks entailing elaborate costumes.  These ducks are emblematic of marital bliss.  During the breeding season, they don’t flock together, preferring to pair up, not associating with other ducks; giving rise to the Japanese expression for a young couple in love – “like Mandarin ducks playing in the water” (oshidori fufu).  Whether or not they mate for life, as is popularly believed, is another matter.  Some pairs renew their bonds annually, some find a new partner every year. Thanks to their reputation as emblems of constancy, the Mandarin duck appears in every area of Japanese culture. Most notable is the 1904 story by Lafcadio Hearn, in which a hungry hunter named Sonjo kills a male Mandarin, despite the risk of bad luck befalling him.  That night he dreams of a beautiful woman weeping and lamenting in his room, and so troubled is he, that he returns to the spot where he shot the drake.  There, the female spots him, swims directly towards him, and “with her beak, she suddenly tore open her body” and died.  Sonjo instantly became a priest.

I am indebted to John Fiorillo for the following observation:

Aratamaru oshika omoiba ("Thinking about how the mandarin ducks have changed") apparently served as a vehicle for the stage debut of the twelve-year-old Nakamura Tamashichi (1837-1860). The performance took place barely more than a year after the death of his father, Shikan III. According to the scholar Roger Keyes*, the subject suggests that Tamashichi's mother had also passed away around this time. Tamashichi would thus have been offering a eulogy to his deceased parents.

After this performance, Tamashichi became a young rising star in Osaka kabuki until he died prematurely at age 24. When he first became ill at age 21, theatre managers and fans worried that Tamashichi would be forced to retire and that attendance in the theaters would drop after the departure of so popular an actor. Desiring to please his fans, the dedicated Tamashichi continued performing. There followed an inexorable deterioration in his health until, after performing for 15 days in Hime kurabe futaba ezôshi,  he received "last day" gifts from his fans and retired to his dressing room in the evening, where he collapsed and died. The next day, Tamashichi's body was transported to Osaka for his funeral.

A really very moving image of the young rising star. The colour and impression fine, with deep blind embossing to the blossom only found in the first edition. Slight damage to the top left corner. Rare of the early edition.

37 x 25.5 cm.