After a brief period as a pupil of Utagawa Kunisada around 1828, began designing prints in Osaka in 1830. Even so, he continued producing woodblock-printed illustrated books (ehon) in the early 1830s in Edo. In 1835 he provided the front-pieces for Heitei Ginkei’s four-volume novel Naniwa zasshi chimata [machi] no uwasa (A miscellany of gossip about the town of Osaka: 浪華雑誌街能噂). The same work identifies Sadahiro as a promising young artist.
There is some conjecture that Sadahiro changed his name to Hirokuni in mid-1847, a few months after publishers began testing the post-Tenpō Reform ban against actor prints. Immediately thereafter, it has been said, Hirokuni changed his name to Hirosada. However, the claim that Sadahiro was the same artist as Hirokuni/Hirosada has not been universally accepted.
One of Sadahiro’s earliest known works is a portrait of Asao Takumi I as Shundō Genba for a performance of Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (Mirror of learning & transmitting Sugawara's secrets of calligraphy: 菅原伝授手習鑑), probably in 3/1830 at the Takeda Theater (see image at right). Standing against a yellow background, Takumi wears one of kabuki's more unusual costumes — a ryûjin maki (dragon god scroll), which has a distinctive billowing rectangular left sleeve made rigid by bamboo inserts and emblazoned with a large crest, in this instance reading "eye" (moku or me, 目). The right sleeve is removed from the arm and fixed at the back in a manner intended to resemble a dried abalone strip (noshi), an auspicious symbol for the continuation of a family lineage, long life, and good fortune. His makeup is called (akazuna or akattsura (red face: 赤面), usually indicating a villain or evil character in kabuki.
In 8/1836, Sadahiro depicted Arashi Rikan II (嵐璃寛) in one of his signature roles as Yorimasa (より政) from the 8/1836 production of Norimasa nue monogatari ((Tale of Yorimasa and the nue: 頼政鵺物語) at the Naka Theater, Osaka. The historical Minamoto no Yorimasa (源の頼政 1104-1180) served eight different sovereigns in his long career, holding posts such as hyôgo no kami (head of the arsenal). He was also a prominent poet whose works appeared in various anthologies. In 1179 he entered the Buddhist priesthood and took the name Gen Sanmi Nyûdô. Although he had allied himself with the Taira (Heike 平家) clan against the Minamoto (Genji 源氏) during the Hôgen no ran(Hôgen civil war; 1156-59) and the Heiji no ra (Heiji civil war; 1160), he switched allegiance and led the Minamoto forces against the Taira in 1180. Suffering defeat at Uji, he committed suicide in the Byôdô Temple.
The play Yorimasa nue monogatari features a legendary Yorimasa who is forever associated with slaying the mythical nue (鵺) in 1153 — as recorded in the Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike: 平家物語), first quarter 13th century. Yorimasa, who was a formidable archer who, looking up at the emperor's palace roof, caught sight of a strange winged-creature with an ape's head, tiger's claws, badger's (tanuki) back, and snake-head tail. As the emperor was suffering from a life-threatening illness, Yorimasa suspected that the nue was the cause. A single arrow took down the beast, whereupon Yorimasa's retainer (Ino Hayata Tadazumi) delivered the coup de grâce with his sword.
Sadahiro's design exploits the atmosphere of a pitch-black stormy night to great effect. Mandarin orange blossoms (tachibana, Rikan’s acting crest: 橘) fall to the ground during an ominous windstorm. Yorimasa's headgear is called a hikitate eboshi ("bird-hat pulled upright": 引立烏帽子), one of the pliable hats worn by samurai. Dressed in elegant, billowing robes nearly the width of the entire sheet, Rikan II sports a sword scabbard covered in yellow and black striped tiger's fur (partly visible on the left behind his right arm). He holds the bow and arrow that he will use to bring down the nue. For more about this design see my text at Sadahiro's Yorimasu. © 2019 by John Fiorillo
- Keyes, R. and Mizushima, K.: Theatrical World of Osaka Prints. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973, pp. 238-39, nos. 275-79.
- Hendrick Lühl: Schätze der Kamigata: Japanische Farbenholzschnitte aus Osaka, 1780-1880 (Treasures of Osaka: Japanese Color Prints from Osaka, 1780-1880). Musee National d'Histoire et d'Art Luxembourg, 2013.
- Matsudaira, Susumu: Kamigata-e: Kôki (Kamigata prints in the former period, Parts I-II. Vols. 4-5). Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum, eds. Tokyo: Waseda University, 1995.
- Matsudaira, Susumu: Kamigata yakusha-e shûsei (Collection of Kamigata actor prints), Vol. III. Osaka: Ikeda Bunko, 1998, pp. 28-31, nos. 91-108.
- Schwaab, Dean: Osaka Prints. New York: Rizzoli, 1989, pp. 42-43, nos. 196, 198, 288-89.