Acting Out a Scene from the Play 'Kagamiyama'
By Utagawa Toyokuni I
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Medium: woodblock, woodcut/woodblock/ukiyo-e
Edition size: n/a
Sheet size: 39.2 by 78.1 cm
signed Toyokuni ga, with censor's kiwame seal and publisher's mark Waka (Wakasaya Yoichi of Jakurindo), ca. 1800
oban tate-e triptych 15 3/8 by 30 3/4 in., 39.2 by 78.1 cm
A group of wealthy ladies at a villa are re-enacting a famous scene from the popular play, Kagamiyama (Mt. Kagami), written by Yo Yodai for the puppet theater in 1782 and first staged as a kabuki play the following year. Known as the Onna Chushingura (Female Chushingura), the story centers on a vendetta between rival factions among the ladies-in-waiting in a samurai household.
The playwright was formerly a physician in the shogun's court; a position which apparently provided him with the opportunity to gain insight into the inner workings of the hierarchy in a samurai family. The play was particularly popular with women and was traditionally staged in March in order to coincide with the month during which women serving in samurai mansions were usually allowed to go home to spend time with their own families and would have been at liberty to attend the theater.
The beauty standing in the center sheet is in the role of the villain, the senior lady-in-waiting Iwafuji, identified in pink kanji incorporated into the pattern on her kimono. The woman seated rather stiffly at left is identified as the junior lady-in-waiting, 'Onoe Matsu' written on her kimono. Iwafuji had challenged Onoe to a kendo (bamboo sword) match, intending to humiliate the junior lady by exposing her lack of true samurai fighting skills due to her comparatively low birth as the daughter of a wealthy commoner. Onoe's maid Ohatsu rushed in to take her place, claiming that she learned to fight from her mistress, but kneels, defeated, before the overbearing Iwafuji's feet.
On the right-hand sheet, a young woman wearing a furisode (swinging sleeves) kimono leans on an arm rest and watches the action intently. She is joined by a woman at her side, with her hand raised to her collar in a gesture suggesting she is taken aback by the exchange unfolding before her; and in the foreground, another young woman pauses mid-step while holding a covered cup of tea, seemingly caught up in the drama of the scene.