The early prints of Katsukawa Shunzan (勝川春山), active c. 1782-98, were portraits of actors in the style of his master Shunshô (c. 1726-1793).
Later in the 1780s his depictions of beautiful women showed the influence of Kiyonaga,
and by the 1790s he had also assimilated aspects of Utamaro's manner. Shunzan
was a gifted artist who produced some fine designs but who unfortunately never developed into a truly innovative talent.
The print shown here is titled Seirô niwaka zensei asobi: Ni no kawari ("Popular Entertainment at the Niwaka Festival, Yoshiwara:
Second Transformation"). The two performers are shown in an entertainment titled Yukihira iso no narematsu ("Practicing Yukihira
and the Pine Tree at the Seashore"). The female figure is a high-ranking courtesan, the oiran Asa, in the role of Matsukaze, while a
male performer plays an unidentified role (possibly the fisherman Konohei). Another oiran named Mume (not depicted) is also listed in the
role of Ujibei. In addition, the chanter for the performance is named (Takemoto Kumedayû) and the instrumentalists (Tsurusawa
Kiichi and Nozawa Hisara). At the lower left is the artist's signature, a kiwame ("approved") censor seal and the mark of the
publisher Eijudô (Nishimura Yohachi).
The Niwaka Festival was performed in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters of Edo during the eighth month each year. By the end of the eighteenth century,
the niwaka were elaborate festivals involving parades with floats bearing courtesans performing to music. They also consisted of spirited
entertainments, sometimes improvised, sometimes amateurish kabuki productions, performed by courtesans, geisha, owners of teahouses and brothels,
and servants or attendants. The themes were varied but often included burlesques or adaptations of classical themes such as the Yukihira scene
portrayed by Shunzan.
The subject portrayed in Shunzan's aiban-size print is based on a tale from the life of Arihara Yukihira (818-893), a poet of the first rank
during the Heian Era and a prince who was exiled for three years to Suma on the shore of the Inland Sea. He becomes involved with two lovely
shiokumi ("salt-scooping") sisters named Matsukaze and Murasame, who both fall in love with him. When he is recalled from exile, he
writes a farewell poem promising to return and leaves it behind with his cloak and court hat (eboshi), hanging them on a pine branch. He never
returns. A fisherman named Konohei informs the sisters that Yukihira has gone, whereupon Matsukaze plunges into madness over the loss of her lover.
She puts on his cloak and dances the story of her tragic love, one of various kabuki dance sequences based on the Matsukaze story. There is also
a Nô play titled 'Matsukaze' that is considered a masterpiece.
In Shunzan's portrait Matsukaze is wearing Yukihira's eboshi and carrying his cloak as she stands before a painted stage scene of the pine tree
at Suma Bay. We are provided with a glimpse of the production style of the Niwaka in the Yoshiwara, which in this case did not require full
costuming, as the 'oiran' Asa still wears her own robes, merely wrapping around her waist a straw skirt in keeping with the role of the rustic
Matsukaze. Shunzan and other ukiyo-e artists of the late eighteenth century frequently explored contrasts between the figures in their print
designs. Here the male entertainer, striking a standard 'mie' ("display") of strength and power, is set against the refined and
gentle form of Asa. The colors in this impression are well preserved and thus demonstrate how the natural dyes of the period actually looked:
partly transparent and restrained without losing their range of expression. ©1999-2019 by John Fiorillo
- Halford, A. and Halford, G.: The Kabuki Handbook. Rutland & Tokyo: C.E. Tuttle, 1956, pp. 328-29.
- Keene, Donald: 20 Plays from the Nô Theatre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970, pp.17-34.
- Leiter, S.: Kabuki Encyclopedia: An English-Language Adaptation of Kabuki Jiten. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979, pp. 137, 259, and 363.
- Seigle, Cecelia Segawa: Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993, p. 108.