Kitagawa Utamaro, 1753-1806
Eight Pledges at Lovers' Meetings: Maternal Love Between Sankatsu and Hanshichi
(Omi hakkei: Sankatsu hanshichi no bosetsu)
signed Utamaro hitsu, with publisher's mark Hon (Omiya Gonkuro of Shuhodo), ca. 1798-99
oban tate-e 15 1/8 by 10 in., 38.3 by 25.5 cm
This print is from a series of three-quarter length portraits of pairs of lovers from popular jojuri puppet plays. The series title, Omi Hakkei (Eight Famous Views), is a common classical theme which groups eight specific locations in Japan (originally based on the Chinese Eight Famous Views of the Xio and the Xiang) paired with eight set poems or images which was utilized in seemingly endless variations by ukiyo-e artists to present more decadent subjects under the guise of propriety. In this print, illustrating the lovers Sankatsu and Hanshichi, Utamaro refers to their affection for each other with the term bosetsu, which can be translated as 'a mother's constant love,' but also works as a pun for 'evening snow'- a clever reference to Hira no bosetsu ('Evening Snow on Mount Hira'), one of the set Omi Hakkei themes which is illustrated within the circular landscape cartouche.
The various plays popularly known as 'Sankatsu and Hanshichi' were based on a the true story of a love suicide that took place in the Sennichi burial ground in Osaka in 1695. Sankatsu was the adopted daughter of Minoya Heizaemon of Nagamachi and a courtesan in Osaka, and Akeneya Hanshichi was the son of a sake merchant in Gojo in the Yamato Province. One of the first adaptions of the story was the play Hade sugata onna mai-ginue which was first staged as a Bunraku puppet play 1772. The story was not converted to a kabuki play until 1874. In the play, the lovers, who have a daughter named Otsu, decide to send the child to Hanshichi's parents carrying a suicide note (where is wife Osono has dutifully stayed with her in-laws) before they commit the act. This print seems to depict the climatic moment when Sankatsu weeps for her child and struggles with their decision, and Hanshichi, here noticeably impatient with her hesitation, urges her to go on, just before they exit the stage by running down the hanamichi in order to commit their suicide out of view.
The composition of this print is very remarkable in its overt display of emotion which is not often found in ukiyo-e subjects. In a genre that usually conveys passions with just a misplaced strand of hair, Utamaro takes a less restrained approach to communicate tensions between the lovers. Sankatsu is sits in crumpled dejection, her head lowered well below her shoulders and she wipes at the corner of her eye, surely in an effort to contain her tears. Hanshichi sits behind her, nearly looming over her shoulders and scowling in her direction. He holds his tobacco pipe vertically, the tip resting on his lap in a manner that mimics a ruler holding a scepter. Perhaps Utamaro's unflattering portrayal of the lovers reflects on his own disapproval of their tragic end.
J. Hillier, Utamaro: Colour Prints and Paintings, 1961, p. 124, cat. no. 80
Sugo Asano and Timothy Clark, The Passionate Art of Kitagawa Utamaro, 1995, cat. nos. 296 and 323
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