Katsukawa Shunsho (勝川春章 1726-93), whose real name was Katsumiyagawa Yūsuke, founded the Katsukawa school of painting and printmaking in Edo. He studied with the ukiyo-e painter and print designer Miyagawa Shunsui (宮川春水 act. 1740s-60s), son and student of the ukiyo-e-style painter Miyagawa Chôshun (宮川長春 1683-1753), both equally notable artists. Although Shunshô is best known for introducing a new form of facial realism or stylized physiognomy to yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者), his paintings of bijin-ga (images of beautiful women: 美人画), while less famous, are considered to be among the best from the second half of the 18th century. Many of his earlier prints have a seal in the shape of a gourd surrounding the character mori (forest: 森). All told, Katsukawa Shunshô has long been considered an eminent ukiyo-e artist whose works rank among the very best eighteenth-century prints, paintings, and illustrated books.
Otokodate (chivalrous commoner: 男伊達 or 男作) were heroic action figures and defenders of the weak and oppressed who were popularized in literature and on the kabuki stage as champions of the lower classes in opposition to the samurai estate, in particular, against lawless hatamoto yakko (bannerman's footmen: 旗本奴), urbanized samurai servants of the shogun. The real-life Karigane gonin, however, were members of a loosely knit gang of 11 or more outlaws in Osaka led by Karigane Bunshichi. Guilty of beatings, theft, and murder spanning several years, they were executed on 8/26/1702. Theatrical dramas, however, mythologized these criminals and transformed them from street thugs into heroes.
The Karigane gonin otoko (Karigane's five men: 雁金五人男) were typically depicted in similar dress and accessories, as if wearing uniforms to express their common cause. These costumes varied across productions, and even by artists depicting the same productions, likely indicating that quite often the artists sketched the designs before the premieres by adorning the actors in appropriate but inaccurate robes. One accessory often associated with otokodate was the shakuhachi (end-blown wooden flute: 尺八), carried by all five members of the gang, probably serving as a symbol of their sophistication, but also as weapons when needed. Each of the five men is associated with a particular emblem or crest: Kaminari Shôkurô's two crossed drum sticks for the drumhead of the Thunder God Kaminari; Karigane Bunshichi's stylized triple-geese hexagon; Anno Heibei's ideograph reading an ("tranquility": 安); Gokuin Sen'emon's crossed mallets over a character from his name, reading sen (thousand); and Hotei Ichiemon's fan and sack.
Shunshô is credited with being the first artist to portray the five otokodate one to a hosoban sheet when he designed a pentaptych for a performance of a Gonin otoko (five-men: 五人男) interlude on a program at the Nakamura-za in the summer of 1768. Our print comes from an interlude in part two of the play Hatsumonbi kuruwa Soga (Soga drama on the first festival day in the pleasure quarter: 初紋日曲輪曽我, also 初紋日廓曽我) by the sakusha (playwright: 作者) Masuyama Kinpachi I (初代増山金八 died 1798) premiering in 2/1780 at the Nakamura-za, Edo.
Nakamura Sukegorô II performs as the aforementioned otokodate Kaminari Shokurô. His green robe has the crest of the crossed drum sticks and the shakuhachi is partly visible behind his back. He stands before the Omiya brothel (named on the upper noren or curtain, 近江屋) in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. The present design is one sheet from a pentaptych. On two of the other sheets in the pentaptych, the Chôjiya (丁子や) brothel is identified. This being a Soga mono (plays about the Soga: 曾我物), the plot must have been a mitate (analogue: 見立) or conflation of episodes involving present-day otokodate with the celebrated and perennially popular twelfth-century tale featuring the Soga brothers hell-bent on avenging their father's murder.
Individual designs by the Katsukawa artists most often survive as single sheets and in very small (if not unique) numbers of impressions. This is the case with our Shunshô hosoban, which has very good color and is in very good condition for a print of this period. To compare, our impression has much better color than the example in the British Museum and is the equal of the one in the Art Institute of Chicago, which has the complete pentaptych (see ref. below). There is also a set in the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
References: British Museum, 1906,1220,0.134 (purchased from Arthur Morrison); Clark and Ueda, The Actor's Image: Print Makers of the Katsukawa School. Art Institute of Chicago, 1994, no. 90, pp. 254-257