The actor is in the role of a samurai, identified by his daisho (two swords), with allover red body makeup and sujiguma (lit. 'line makeup') on his face emphasizing his ferocity. He wears a wide-shouldered over-vest decorated with a wave pattern and a kimono marked with the kanji, Kaji (?) which he has pushed off his right shoulder in order to free up his arm as he draws his katana (long sword). A rolled up letter is gripped in between his teeth and near his feet are a sanbo (sake stand) and lacquer hishaku (ladle) containing folded paper.
detailThe role appears to be Matano Goro Kagehisa, a hot-headed general allied with the Heikei (or Taira) clan against the Genji (or Minamoto) clan in the Genpei War. The 'Kaji' on the shoulder of his kimono refers to his allegiance with Kajiwara Heizo Kagetoki, the Taira general (and secret Genji sympathizer) known from the historical account of the war, Heike Monagatari (The Tale of Heike) and subsequent narratives. Kajiwara and his cohorts appear in a number of stories and plays regarding the Genpei War. One version, Miura no Osuke Kobai Tazuna (The Plum-Blossom Reins of Miura no Osuke) was first staged in Osaka in 1730 and consists of five acts, each episode turns of a subplot involving the whereabouts, authenticity, and return of an important sword associated with the Genji family. This print seems to depict Sukegoro II in a famous scene from the end of the third act, known as Ishikiri Kajiwara (Stone-Cutting Kajiwara), which takes place outside of a shrine where the group had stopped to pray and refresh themselves with sake. The characters have just received a provoking letter- seen here gripped in Matano's teeth, and are debating about who should perform a gruesome cutting test of the sword (highlighted in this print with a distinctive sheath) on two living souls: a convict and a tragic old mother-of-pearl inlay worker who is desperate to sell it and prevent his daughter from selling herself to a brothel. The paper and ladle of water were used to ritually clean the sword in an honorific gesture when it was inspected for quality and authenticity.
Nakamura Sukegoro II (1719-1786) specialized in kataki yaku (evil enemy) roles. He was especially popular in the 1760s-70s, when his 'bad guy' characters frequently played opposite the 'good guy' otokodate (chivalrous commoner) roles as portrayed by the heart throb Otani Hiroji III.
Image rights: Scholten Japanese Art
by the heart throb Otani Hiroji III.
Timothy T. Clark, et. al., The Actor's Image: Print Makers of the Katsukawa School, 1994, p. 484 (actor's bio)
James R. Brandon and Samuel L. Leiter, eds., Kabuki Plays on Stage: Brilliance and Bravado, 1697-1766, Vol. pp. 114-138
Honolulu Museum of Art (honolulumuseum.org), from the Michener Collection, accession no. 16478
About Katsukawa Shunsho
Japanese, 1726-1792, Japan, based in Japan