Stories of lovers involved in domestic tragedies were among the principal themes of romantic passion in Japanese printmaking. These scandalous tales typically involved conflicts between social obligations (giri, 義理) and personal emotions or "human feelings" (ninjô, 人情). Such stories, often freely adapted from actual events, were widely popular on the puppet and kabuki stages, as well as in ballads, broadsheets, oral recitatives, and illustrated fiction.
The couples in these stories faced intransigent opposition to their liaisons from family and society, and as a result they faced insurmountable obstacles and frequently brought upon themselves inconsolable suffering. Many stories involved shinjû ("inside the heart," but signifying "double suicide": 心中). Without a way to escape or to legitimize their love, or having committed crimes to keep their love alive, they ultimately chose to die together rather than live apart. These were extraordinary couples, and the Japanese public was fascinated by such tales of reckless love.
In the late 1790s Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) introduced a new approach for the depiction of tragic lovers. His innovative compositions were constructed with an pictorial vocabulary that set his prints apart from earlier ukiyo-e artists. Utamaro's emphasis on the emotional and psychological aspects of these characters and their stories represented an important development in printmaking when realism was increasingly reflected in the arts and literature of the period.
Early ukiyo-e printmakers designed overwhelmingly in the full-length format, which by its nature introduced some distance between the viewer and the figures. This visual separation was both physical and psychological, and it partly diminished the emotional impact of the figures. In contrast, Utamaro designed around 120 single-sheet prints depicting tragic lovers, and many were in the close-up ôkubi-e ("large-head": 大首絵) format, which introduced far greater intimacy and brought emotion closer to the picture surface by zooming in on the faces of the protagonists.
The print shown here is from a series titled Jitsu kurabe iro no minakami ("Comparing true feelings — sources of love: 実競色乃美名家見) published circa 1798-99. There are 20 known designs from this important group (one other design is mentioned in the literature but remains unconfirmed), published by Nishimuraya Yohachi (西村屋与八 whose firm name was Eijudô, 栄寿堂). There is also a seal that reads "Sei han," possibly a firm related directly to Nishimura Yohachi or a secondary publisher or distributor.
Each design in the series depicts a pair of famous lovers from shinjû-mono (plays about double-suicide: 心中物). The lovers' names, Keisei Umegawa (契情梅川) and Hikyakuya Chûbei (飛脚屋忠兵衛), are inscribed above them. Chûbei, aged 24, was a courier who stole money from a client to ransom his lover, the low-ranking courtesan Umegawa, aged 22. They fled and went into hiding, but were eventually captured and executed (or in some theatrical versions, they committed double suicide). The tale was particularly well known because Japan's greatest Edo-period playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), wrote an influential puppet play about the lovers, which was titled Meido no hikyaku (The Courier for Hell: 冥途の飛脚), first performed at the Takemoto Theater in Osaka on April 22, 1711. It was based on a scandalous event that took place in late 1710 (but whose details are now lost). In the play the narrator prepares the story's ending by referring to the lovers as birds caught in a snare and declaring that they were doomed not to escape.
Chûbei and Umegawa are shown here during the final michiyuki ("road going": 道行) as they journey toward Chûbei's home town of Ninokuchi in Yamato province. Utamaro has depicted his lovers using his distinctive "portrait" style. The faces were not actual likenesses (nigao, 似顔), but rather were drawn with a goal toward displaying their emotional state, thus a different kind of "portrait." What the Japanese of the period called ninjô was, in fact, the central theme of these prints, despite the fashionable clothing and pleasing facial typologies.
Utamaro also incorporated three pictorial devices that he and other artists used repeatedly to depict tragic lovers. First, Umegawa and Chûbei lean slightly forward as they walk, for they are on a journey (called the michiyuki or "road going"). In these stories the 'michiyuki' often took the form of either an attempt to escape or a final secret journey as the lovers traveled toward some chosen destination where they would commit double suicide. Second, they press close together while sharing an umbrella (aiaigasa, 相合傘), an iconographic symbol of romance and intimacy during the Edo period and serving here as a public display of passionate love. Third, they wear headscarves to hide their identities while traveling. (Umegawa also bites down on her scarf in a conventional gesture of suppressed emotion.) Utamaro's print offers an intimate portrait of wayward lovers who fail to resolve the destructive complications of their illicit love. For the viewer of Utamaro's day this double portrait would have resonated with the tragic romanticism made popular on the theatrical stage. ©1999-2019 by John Fiorillo
See Kiyonaga degatari-zû for another example of shinjû.