Kunisada, Bando Mitsugo as Umeomaru in Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Bando Mitsugo as Umeomaru in Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami, 1828. Oban.

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What an enigmatic image… bullfighters attacking each other with music staves! Well, not that but perhaps no less surprising. The scene pictured here comes from the play Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami ('The Secrets of Calligraphy'). 

This great play is based on the life of Sugawara no Michizane (845~903), a renowned scholar, falsely accused by Fujiwara no Shihei, of hatching a plot to seize the power. At the time when the authors were working on the play, a great stir was caused in Osaka by the birth of triplets. It was therefore decided to make use of triplets in the new production and thus it was that Matsuomaru, Umeomaru and Sakuramaru came into being. For the purpose of the story, the triplets are the sons of Sugawara's retainer, Shiratayu.

Sugawara named them after the trees he loved best, Matsu (Pine), Ume (Plum) and Sakura (Cherry). On their father's retirement, Umeomaru took his place as Sugawara's personal retainer. At the same time his two others brothers were found equally worthy employment, one as the retainer of Prince Tokiyo and the other in the household of Sugawara's colleague, Fujiwara no Shihei. When Shihei's jealousy brought about Sugawara's downfall, the triplets became the victims of divided loyalties

Since the downfall of Kan Shojo (Sugawara), the two brothers Umeomaru and Sakuramaru are masterless retainers. They meet and mourn the tragic events that led to the banishment of their former masters; and the sad fact that their brother Matsuomaru is still in the service of the villain Shihei. The walls of the shrine open on stage to reveal a magnificent carriage, led by Sugiomaru, the steward of Shihei's procession. The brothers rush to stop it.  Umeomaru and Sakuramaru have no trouble overcoming Shihei's soldiers but a loud bass shout is heard. Matsuomaru appears defying his two brothers. Matsuomaru, who firmly holds the banner of Shihei, sends them about their business, saying that his master's enemies are his own enemies too. Umeomaru and Sakuramaru rush at the carriage, destroying its side panels. Drums roll, suggesting the presence of supernatural forces in this carriage. Fujiwara no Shihei appears and, thanks to his magical power, reduces the two brothers to powerlessness. He crushes them with his scornful attitude and Matsuomaru mocks them. This short play ends with Matsuomaru reminding his brothers that they will soon gather at their father's house to celebrate his 70th birthday anniversary.

We see here Bando Mitsugo as Umeomaru on the left and  Iwai Kumisaburo II as Sakuramaru fighting in front of the carriage with the wreckage of the side panels. These archaic early Kunisada prints brim with a tremendous energy and this is no exception.  This scene and the play itself were popular with kabuki audiences and woodblock artists. This fresh and energetic print is a true diptych and not missing a third panel. Colour, impression and condition are all very good. Sheets unattached and unbacked.

49.5 x 36.5 cm.