This print is from the series Nanatsu iroha (Seven syllables of the Japanese alphabet: 七ﾂいろは), co-designed by Enjaku, Kunikazu and Yoshitaki. All were published by Ishiwa. This deluxe-edition set was issued for various performances circa 1857-1865, plus a few mitate (lit., "view and compare" or analogue pictures: 見立) for imaginary productions with casts of actors who never actually performed together at the time. Each design includes seven different ideograms or kanji pronounced the same, either matching the pronunciation of the first character of the actor's role or suggesting an alternate association with the actor, role, or play. All the designs include a hand scroll at the top with the actor's name (if included), play title, and series title. Signatures, if included, are placed in either the scroll or the background behind the actors.
Nakamura Tamashichi (1837 - 2/15/1860) was the son of Nakamura Shikan III (1810-1847). Tamashichi was a rising young star in Osaka kabuki until he died prematurely at age 24. When he first became ill at age 21, theatre managers and fans worried that Tamashichi would be forced to retire and that attendance in the theaters would drop after the departure of so popular an actor. Desiring to please his fans, the dedicated Tamashichi went on performing for nearly three more years. Sadly, his health continued to decline until, after performing for 15 days in Hime kurabe futaba ezôshi ("Picture-book comparison of twin blades and the princess") given at the Shijô Kitakawa, Kyoto, 2/1860, he received "last day" gifts from his fans and retired to his dressing room in the evening, where he collapsed and died. The next day, Tamashichi's body was transported to Osaka for his funeral. At least 7 shini-e ("death prints": 死絵) were hastily produced, a high number for such a young Osaka actor, and the writers of hyôbanki (actor critiques or evaluaton books: 評判記) composed tributes mourning a "flower dying before full bloom."
Images of actors offstage were endlessly fascinating to kabuki fans who idolized their favorite actors. They also yearned to collect intimate views of these cultural and entertainment icons, coveting not only scenes from performances, but also the much rarer images of actors backstage, either preparing for, or resting after, a performance. Views of actors on outings away from the theaters, including picnicking or visiting temples and shrines, were also very popular.
In this unsigned print (possibly by Kunikazu), we can see the large makeup brush Tamashichi is using to apply face powder. A colorful tenugui (cotton towel: 手ぬぐい) is draped over his left shoulder.
The copper pigment in the scroll above Tamashichi is especially well preserved in this finely printed example.
Note: For another backstage view, see KMS30.
References: IKBYS-IV, no. 618