Shinmachi ("New Quarters": 新町) was Osaka's official licensed pleasure quarter. Both it and the Shimanouchi (lit., "inside the island": 島の内) unlicensed district to the southwest hosted nerimono sugata (costume parades: ねり物姿) featuring waitresses, geisha, and courtesans performing skits or pantomimes about well-known figures from contemporary society, theater, history, and legend. In this colorful pageant, the women were often accompanied by decorative floats carrying musicians and dancers.
Prints depicting women of the nerimono represent an important exception to the tenacious focus on kabuki for which kamigata-e are known. These visual records of participants in the parades offer glimpses into alternative entertainments beyond the kabuki and puppet theaters, and clues regarding what the citizens of nineteenth-century Osaka found fascinating and enjoyable. The nerimono were large-scale fantasies within a special world of asobi (play or amusement: 遊) where pleasure women, geishas, teahouse waitresses, musicians, actors, theater patrons, and bon vivants eagerly sought escape from everyday life.
Shigenobu was the son-in-law and then adopted son of the Edo master Katsushika Hokusai — see Shigenobu. His work in surimono (privately issued specialty prints) with the brilliant Osaka-based woodcarver, printer, and designer Tani Seikô are counted among the glories of ukiyo-e printmaking. Shigenobu was active in Osaka from 1822 to 1825.
Dressed in Tang-period costume, Hatsuhanadayû performs a genjôraku (還城楽), a type of bugaku (舞楽) or court dance. A related term is gagaku (雅楽), which means "elegant music" and refers to an entertainment that includes both bugaku dance and orchestral music (kangengaku 管絃楽) handed down over the centuries by professional court musicians and preserved today by musicians belonging to the Imperial Household Agency in Tokyo.
Genjôraku or ''finding-a-snake music'' is an elegantly attired solo dance. It is said to refer to the practice in Central Asia of eating snakes for medicinal purposes. The dance begins with the hunting of the snake and, after an attendant has brought out a long coil representing a reptile, the dancer examines and manipulates it while picking up speed and intensity in a mesmerizing whirl of movement. Genjôraku is accompanied by Korean-originated music, komagaku (高麗楽), which uses no plucked-string instruments, only winds and percussion. Evidence of a distant Indian influence can also be found, which may be traced to an ancient Vedic folktale. Specifically, the melody accompanying the genjôraku dance is considered capable of casting a spell upon a snake and thereby exorcising it. In keeping with the dance, Hatsuhanadayû holds a small coiled snake in her left hand.
As Shigenobu was an Edo artist visiting Osaka, he chose to sign as Tôto Yanagawa Shigenobu (東都柳川重信), with the Tôto prefix meaning "Eastern," signifying Edo in eastern Japan. This print is from an important series of at least 14 portraits that Shigenobu designed for the parade in 1822 (the series title is written in the pink cartouche at the upper right). It is with this series that Shigenobu premiered the ôban nishiki-e bijin-ga in Kamigata.
Sheets from this series are very difficult to find in good condition. Most surviving impressions have faded color in the large uchiwa (rigid fan: 團扇 or 団扇), thus losing the inscriptions printed in reserve. Our impression, however, retains enough of the fan color to make the inscriptions legible. The yellow background across the entire sheet is also particularly strong. Furthermore, prints of beautiful women (bijin-ga) in any style are uncommon in kamigata-e, making this a highly desirable print.
Impressions exist in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; British Museum; Waseda University, Tokyo; and Konan Women's University, Kobe.
References: WAS-IV , no. 661; WKN (Nakade), no. 125; KNZ, no. 504