Last month, when I was preparing the story to accompany the print by Sharaku, I wondered how much 'background' to include; should I tell you about the actor, the scene in the play, the action that was about to take place? In the end, I decided not to discuss such things, but to keep my commentary based on print-related points. That's actually the safest course for me to take - I know a lot more about woodblock prints than I do about old Japanese culture - but it always leaves me wondering about the way that the collectors 'understand' these prints. During the years that I was making prints based on the Hyakunin Isshu poetry, this wasn't a concern - most of the collectors of that series had a good understanding of what each print was 'about'. But now that I am making prints with a much wider variety of subject matter, it is far less clear to me just how much I should assume is understood, and how much is necessary to explain.
This month's print is a perfect example. The original viewers of this fan image would have recognized at a glance exactly what they were looking at: they would recognize the designer, the title of the book from which this is an illustration, the names of the two characters depicted, and I think probably they would even recognize the particular episode from the story. But a lot of years have passed since this print was created, and I suspect that the number of people who could score 100% on this 'test' might be rather few and far between. Let's see!
If you answered Hiroshige for the designer, you couldn't be faulted, although this print is actually an imitation of a Hiroshige design; the signature is difficult to decipher, but perhaps reads Shoshin.
The book? It is the famous 'Hizakurige', commonly translated into English as 'Shank's Mare', the serialized story of a pair of characters and the adventures they have while travelling the length of the old Tokaido route, penned in the Edo era by Ikku Jippensha.
The characters are remembered as Kita and Yaji, and perhaps some of you would even recognize their full names: Kitahachi and Yajirobei ...
But those were all 'easy' - now for the tough one ... what is the scene from the book depicted here? The Tokaido route crosses many rivers - why would the designer have found this particular crossing worthy of illustrating? Perhaps because this little episode captures in a nutshell all we need to know about Kita and Yaji ...
They are a couple of good-for-nothings swaggering and blustering their way down the highway. They have arrived at the Oi River, where teams of porters make a living carrying passengers across to the other side. After failing to strike a good bargain with a porter, Kita and Yaji decide to pose as a high-ranking samurai and his attendant. Yaji takes Kita's dirk and arranges it with his own in such a manner as to imitate the two swords of a samurai, and while Kita carries both their bags, they approach the head riverman. But when they announce themselves as travelling on important business they are asked about the rest of their party. Yaji starts making up a story about their large 'kago with eight tall fellows to carry it', their standard bearers and twelve attendants, the bearers for the lacquered boxes, the retinue of thirty people in all ... His explanation for them being unaccompanied at the moment is that these other people have all caught the measles and have been left behind at various points along the road. What Yaji doesn't realize is that his empty scabbard has become snagged on a post and bent, thus exposing him as a fake samurai and his story as a tall tale. So they are ridiculed and chased away, something that seems to happen to them a lot during their travels!
So in our print we are being treated to a view of Kita and Yaji's magnificent (and completely imaginary) retinue as it is carried across a river in the appropriate 'high style'.
How did you score on the 'test'? I should be honest and admit that although I could recognize the designer, the book, and yes, even the two scoundrels' names, I wasn't able to pull the particular episode out of my own memory, but had to ask for help!
I wonder - a hundred years from now, just how many people will be able to recognize something like an episode from say, a Tora-san movie?