This print was issued commercially in the autumn of 1831. It is laden with visual and textual information for the viewer to process. The following notes indicate some of the ways in which this print would have been read when first offered for sale.
Inscriptions and marks
- The largest characters inscribed at the top right of the print name the actor depicted: Ichikawa Danjuro VII, one of the great exponents of heroic roles and the most popular of all nineteenth-century actors.* To the right of his name in much smaller characters is the name of the role in which he is depicted: that of Matsuomaru, one of the heroes in the popular historical drama Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy. He performed the role in a revival of the drama that opened at the Kawarazaki Theatre in Edo in 09.1831.
- The two lines of cursive script to the left of the actor’s name remind the viewer of two other heroic roles that Danjuro had performed that season: Hyogonosuke in Yaguchi Ferry Crossing and Kumagae Naozane in Chronicle of the Battle of Ichinotani in performances at the Kawarazaki Theatre in the fifth and seventh month of 1831 respectively.
- The artist’s signature, Kunisada ga (drawn by Kunisada), appears on the left edge of the print, written in characters of modest size and followed by the red circular toshidama seal used by artists of the Utagawa school.
- The signature is balanced on the right edge of the print by the censor’s seal and publisher’s mark, which are placed just below Danjuro’s name. The publisher Sanoya Kihei issued many of Kunisada’s actor prints in the late 1820s and the 1830s.
- Above Danjuro’s head there is a poem of his own composition printed from a block that reproduces his own cursive script. It is signed and sealed ‘the seventh generation Sansho’ (Sansho is the ‘poetry name’ used by bearers of the Danjuro stage name.) The poem with its dense word play and multiple levels of meaning would have teased and delighted Danjuro’s fans, many of whom would also have been amateur poets. Only a few of the puns and allusions can be hinted at here.
kore de sando ya
Here I am, for the third time,
with a changed appearance,
Like a chestnut from Shimosa!_
- The place, Shimosa, in the last line of the poem is the name of the province in which the first actor to bear the Danjuro name was born in the seventeenth century. His successors made pilgrimages to his birthplace there to honour his memory.
- The phrase Shimosa guri (‘Chestnuts from Shimosa’) asks the reader to compare the fuzzy-haired appearance of Danjuro as depicted here with a bristly chestnut from Shimosa.
- There is also a verbal pun in sando (‘third time’) and guri (‘chestnut’): Sando guri is a type of chestnut that bears fruit three times a year.
- Sando (‘third time’) appears in the phrase ‘‘for a third time/with a changed appearance’. This refers to the three roles that Danjuro performed that season, all of which are named on the print.
- Make-up and costume indicate that Danjuro is shown in a scene in the fourth act of the play entitled ‘The Village Schoolroom’ (Terakoya).
- Matsuomaru makes his entrance in this scene in a palanquin feigning illness. His unshaved forehead, unruly hair and purple headband tied on the left side of his head to bring relief from headache, all lend credence to his claim that he is ill and at the same time indicate to the viewer that he is in a state of extreme nervous tension.
- On stage, the costume worn by Danjuro VII in this scene would have been decorated with the branches of a snow-laden pine.
The snow-covered pine branches (matsu) were meant not only to recall the character’s name, Matsuo maru, but also through their literary associations to emphasise his tragic fate and heroic nature (his triplet brothers were named after the plum, Umeo maru, and cherry, Sakura maru). In this print, Kunisada chose to depart from stage convention and depict the hero in a heavy overcoat decorated with roused dragons, beasts associated with great strength and nobility. The dragons serve to amplify the force of Danjuro’s VIIs pose and reflect the dreadful conflict of emotions within his loyal heart.
Although he is in the employ of the villain of the piece, Matsuomaru remains loyal to his true lord, Kan Shojo. The villain ordered the murder of Kan Shojo’s young son and heir, Kan Shusai. He commanded Matsuomaro to accompany the party of officers sent to capture and kill the boy because he was the only person in his retinue who could identify the boy with certainty.
Matsuomaru contrived to have his own son killed in place of Kan Shusai. His son is murdered off stage; it takes all his will to retain his composure at the muffled sound of the deathblow.
His son’s severed head is then brought on stage in a box and laid before him. He opens the box, gazes on his son’s head, and with complete self-control announces, Ah, that he has beheaded Kan Shusai.there can be no doubt, no question. Kunisada has depicted Danjuro as Matsuomaru at this dreadful moment. We see the actor portraying Matsuomaru’s pain as he is caught between his personal, paternal feelings and the merciless demands made by the code of loyalty that bound him to his lord.
His excruciating inner struggle is expressed by the way the actor clenches his fist, grits his teeth and crosses his eyes. The hero must, without hesitation, fulfil his obligations to his lord no matter what the personal cost.
This grim scene is regarded as one of the weightiest in all Kabuki for male-role actors.