Yoshiwara saiken no zu (View of the Yoshiwara courtesan's directory: 吉原細見圖) shares a similar title with actual guidebooks to the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, such as Yoshiwara saiken no zu (A close look at the Yoshiwara: 吉原細見の図) from 1731. The Yoshiwara saiken ("close inspection": 細見) were published biannually in spring (the new year's month by the lunar calendar) and autumn. They served as guidebooks for visitors to the Yoshiwara ("field of rushes": 葭原 then later 吉原) pleasure quarter in Edo, providing the names of brothels, locations, and names of courtesans, as well as the owner's name, business size, and rank. Cities other than Edo had such guidebooks, but few have survived, and apparently none from Kyoto's Shimabara or Nagasaki's Maruyama.
The performance depicted in Ashiyuki's print took place at the Kita-Horie no Shibai (北掘江芝居), a small shrine theater in Ichinokawa (市之川), Osaka. Records for the shrine theaters are far from complete, and too often the plots of those plays remain unknown to us.
In reading the play title, kabuki fans would have readily recognized the illustrious name "Hanaôgi" (flower fan: 花扇), the professional sobriquet used in a lineage of prominent courtesans (ôiran) of the Yoshiwara's Ôgi-ya ("House of the Folding Fan"). Inherited names or myôseki (名跡) passed down from from retired courtesans to their followers within the same brothel were the property of the brothels, not the women who bore them. Little is known about any of the women in this myôseki line, nor about the precise chronology of their retirement and succession. Even so, the earliest (first four or five) Hanaôgi of the 1770s-80s were skilled in poetry, koto, tea ceremony, and calligraphy, enjoying high status within the Yoshiwara and boasting of as many as eight attending shinzô ("newly launched" or courtesans in training: 新造), considerably more than most courtesans. Throughout the period, shinzô in service to the Hanaôgi pleasure women took names featuring the character hana, such as Hanasumi, Hanazono, Hanatsuru, and Hanakishi. The last Hanaôgi to hold the myôseki was likely the ninth (she was of a lower yobidashi chûsan rank and had no shinzô attendants); she was active from 1839 to 1842, the year the fourth-generation owner of the Ôgi-ya was forced to sell his business.
The precipitous vertical positioning of Kitsusaburô standing above Tomokichi, along with the purple in both kimonos, creates a fascinating fusion of forms, combining the two actors visually in an assemblage of arrested motion. Working against this verticality and providing the design with much of its animation are strong diagonals: Toyama's upraised sword, his left arm, the pair of sword scabbards, the inscribed scroll, and Hanaôgi's tilted head and upper torso. Her expensive padded kimono speaks of her high ranking, decorated as it is with a striking combination of purple, yellow, and red dyes, and patterned with a vivid array of flowers — all told, a robe that would have cost quite a sum to fabricate. Toyama anchors himself by grasping the handle of a black-lacquer floor lamp (andon: 行灯), no doubt the source of light for Hanaôgi's reading of the scroll, but now illuminating a scene of violence.
This same impression was borrowed for an exhibition at the Ashiya City Museum in 2016 featuring depictions of women and their kimono in ukiyo-e.
The colors on this impression are very well preserved; the yellow and purple combination is especially eye-catching, which the photo here does not entirely reveal.
References: IKBYS-I, no. 249; Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. University of Hawaii Press, 1993.