Kyoto was the main center of activity for the production of kappazuri-e (stencil prints, literally, "oil-skin prints"), with a tradition spanning close to a century. Prints of teahouse women and courtesans represented one important aspect of this genre, although they amounted to only a small fraction of the total output—among these were the Gion nerimono-e of Kyoto (see references below). More common were actor prints (yakusha-e: 役者絵).
Once abundant throughout western Japan (Kansai), kappazuri-e were often printed quickly and in small and cheap editions on thin paper, with fugitive pigments (generally more transparent than those used in nishiki-e — "brocade prints" or full-color prints, 浮世絵) that were brushed through stencils after woodblocks were used to stake out the keyblock lines. It was only in Kyoto that kappazuri-e maintained fairly high standards and enjoyed a measure of respect up to the midpoint of the nineteenth century.
The persistent support accorded such a quaint, antiquated technology, as compared with the predominant nishiki method, seems to have been due not only to economics, but also, ironically, to the very primitiveness of the stencil print's appearance. Japanese, in general, value evidence of the artisanal process in their crafts, and kappazuri-e reveal how they are made even more frankly than do nishiki-e. On top of that, Kyoto-ites are known for championing the rustic, imperfect aesthetic of the tea ceremony, and may have actually preferred the quieter, subtler-toned look of stencils to the relatively slick and flamboyant aspect of nishiki-e.
Sadly, almost all stencil prints have perished over time, due to the delicacy of the paper, their generally small size, and the relatively low esteem in which they have been held when compared with nishiki-e (though they, too, were too often neglected). The vast majority of stencil-print designs are now very difficult to find, regardless of condition.
The broader "world" (sekai: 世界) in which this unsigned kappazuri-e should be placed involves such chronicles as the Tales of the Genpei (源平) — wars between the Heike (平家, also called Taira, 平) and the Genji (源氏, also called Minamoto: 源) clans in 1184. These sagas, and especially its hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune, were very popular subjects for ukiyo-e prints and ehon. The two primary sources were the Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike: 平家物語), first compiled around 1220, and the Genpei seisuiki (History of the Rise and Fall of the Genji and Heike: 源平盛衰記), covering the period 1160-1185.
Chronicles and legends combine to tell us that at the battle of Mt. Ishibashi in 1181, Kajiwara Heizô Kagetoki (梶原平三景時, died 1200) initially fought for the Taira and defeated Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝, 1149-99), the older half brother of the legendary Minamoto no Yoshitsune (源義経, 1159-89). Kagetoki tracked down Yoritomo hiding in the mountains but purposely misled his troops in another direction, and soon afterwards allied himself with Yoritomo, becoming his ichi no rôdô (number one aide), serving as field commander, superintendent of logistics and warriors, and inspector-general of officers. In the field, he was ranked saburai daishô (general of soldiers), just below Yoshitsune (ranked sô-daishô, general of the army). Kagetoki, however, would not defer to Yoshitsune, regarding himself as Yoritomo's o-daikan (special deputy). In a celebrated dispute involving preparations for a naval battle, at which the Minamoto were not experienced, Kagetoki suggested that the boats be fitted with oars to enable them to move backwards if needed, whereupon Yoshitsune accused him of cowardice, asking why a warrior would plan a retreat from the outset. Kagetoki argued that a great general attacks when it is right to do so, and retreats when he must, so as to live another day to defeat his enemy. Yoshitsune responded that he knew only one way to engage the enemy — fighting all out to win. Kagetoki would later spread lies about Yoshitsune, which contributed to Yoritomo's suspicions about his all-too-famous sibling who was an exceptional and inspirational military leader. Ultimately, Yoritomo turned against Yoshitsune, sending an army to defeat him and forcing Yoshitsune to take the lives of his wife, children, and himself.
We have not uncovered the precise narrative details of the play Kajiwara Heizô kitai no ishikiri (The stone-cutting sword of Kajiwara Heizô: 梶原平三希代伐), but it must be an adaptation of one of the related dramas recounting the life and legends of Kajiwara Heizô Kagetoki. Among these, Kajiwara Heizô kôbai tazuna (Plum blossom reins of Kajiwara Heizô: 梶原平三紅梅[たずな]*) premiered in 3/1821 at the Kado no shibai. No longer performed, it was written by the superstar actor Nakamura Utaemon III under his dramaturgical name, Kanazawa Ryûgoku (he also played the title role). Utaemon adapted the third act of Miura no Ôsuke kôbai tazuna (The plum-blossom reins of Miura no Ôsuke), first performed as a ningyô jôruri (puppet play: 人形淨瑠璃) in 2/1730 at the Takemoto no shibai, Osaka; the first kabuki adaptation took place six months later at the Kado no shibai, Osaka in 8/1730.
Today, the play's most exciting scene is performed independently as Kajiwara Heizô homare no ishikiri (The stone-cutting feat of Kajiwara Heizô; also called Ishikira Kajiwara, "Stone-cutting Kajiwara"). The sword is a treasured and valuable heirloom of the Genji clan, which comes into play during the last scene of the third act. An elderly man and Genji sympathizer named Rokurôdayû wishes to sell a sword to raise money (secretly) for the clan. The Heike ally Ôba Saburô is interested, and Kagiwara, an outstanding swordsman, who is pretending to be a Heike sympathizer, recognizes it as the Genji treasure and gives it his approval, but without revealing his knowledge. Ôba's villainous brother Matano Gorô demands that the sword be tested by cutting two criminals in half simultaneously. As there happens to be only one prisoner awaiting death, Rokurôdayû offers himself as the second body, as long as his daughter is given the money. The condemned criminal lays on top of Rokurôdayû, whereupon Kajiwara brings the sword down with astonishing precision, cutting off the prisoner's head while leaving Rokurôdayû untouched. Matano assumes the sword is a failure and leaves in disgust. Kajiwara then offers to buy the sword (to raise money for the Genji) and then demonstrates that the sword is a superior weapon by a slicing a stone water basin in two.
Note: We have dated this kappazuri-e based on stylistic grounds. Interestingly, the Osaka superstar Nakamura Utaemon III performed as Kajiwara in the same play when it was given at the Kyoto Shijô Kitakawa no Shibai in 11/1822.
References: GPS: "The Gion Parade Stencil Prints." Ujlaki, Peter. In: Andon, no. 63, 1999, pp. 5-16. GNP: "Gion Nerimono Prints Revisited: The List." Ujlaki, Peter and Nakade, Akifumi. In: Andon, no. 75, 2003, pp. 5-48; SDK, no. 53 (for Utaemon III as Kajiwara)
* Our Japanese character set does not include the kanji for "tazuna," so hiragana have been substituted within brackets.