Color woodblock print: ōban tate-e,15½ x 10⅜ in. (39.4 x 26.4 cm); 7/1863
Series: Untitled Series of Ōkubi-e of Actors Past and Present
Signed: Nanajūhassai Toyokuni ga within toshidama cartouche
Censor’s seal: combined date and aratame
Blockcutter: Horikō Ryūzō (Kiyomizu Ryūzō)
Publisher: Ebisuya Shōshichi (Kinshōdō)
Sawamura Sōjūrō III (1753–1801), depicted here, was born in Edo and was an acclaimed child actor who made his debut under the name Tanosuke I, in 1759. He became Sōjūrō III after the death of his father in 1771. He was a popular leading man in both Edo and the Kamigata region, and in 1790, became the manager of the Ichimura theater in Edo. From that position he persuaded the great Kabuki dramatist Namiki Gohei I to come to Edo, whereupon the writer created several roles for his patron in plays such as Suda no Haru Geisha Katagi, which premiered at the Kiri Theater in the New Year of 1796.
The play was a sewamono, a complex drama of townsmen’s life that contrasted giri (duty) with ninjō (emotion or humanity) and was based on a true story of murder and mayhem that took place in Osaka during the Genroku era (1688–1704). Sōjūrō III was cast as Ume no Yoshibei, a hotheaded but dashing otokodate (a swordsman who defended the poor). He wore a purple hood to which a lock was pinned, on his head as a reminder to control his temper. The character is always portrayed wearing a flamboyant dark-blue robe embroidered with a design of a murder of crows, over a red-and-white underrobe of flying cranes, as Kunisada depicts him here. With a cloud passing over the moon above him, his purple headcloth removed since he is ready for action, the actor stares defiantly at the viewer as he reaches to draw his sword. So esteemed was Sōjūrō’s performance that it became the standard against which all future actors of the role were judged, and part of the repertoire that was reserved for members of the Sawamura lineage.