The play Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (Mirror of learning & transmitting Sugawara's secrets of calligraphy: 菅原伝授手習鑑) is based on legends surrounding the life of Sugawara Michizane (845-903: 菅原道真), also known as Kan Shôjô (菅丞相). Founder of the Kanke school of calligraphy and a favorite of Emperor Daigo, Sugawara ran afoul of an envious political rival named Fujiwara no Tokihira (Fujiwara no Shihei in the play) and was exiled to Kyûshû. After Sugawara's death, plague and drought spread throughout Japan and the sons of Emperor Daigo died in succession. The Imperial Palace's Great Audience Hall was struck repeatedly by lightning, igniting fires, and Kyoto was battered by rainstorms and floods. Attributing these calamities to Sugawara's vengeful spirit, the imperial court built and dedicated to him a Shinto shrine in 986 called Kitano Tenmangu (北野天満宮) in Kyoto. The court also posthumously restored his title and office, and removed records of his exile. Sugawara was deified as a Tenjin (Heavenly [Sky] deity: 天神), and many Shinto shrines in Japan were and continue to be dedicated to him.
This jidaimono ("period piece" or history play: 時代物) premiered in 8/1746 as a ningyô jôruri (puppet play: 人形淨瑠璃) at the Takemoto no Shibai, Osaka. It is one of the most admired of all puppet dramas, whose four authors also composed two other masterpieces in the 1740s, Kanadehon chûshingura (Writing manual for the treasury of the loyal retainers: 假名手本忠臣蔵) and Yoshitsune senbon zakura (Yoshitsune and the thousand cherry trees: 義経千本桜). In the play, Sugawara (Kan Shôjô) is a calligraphy master and Minister of the Right who shares power with Shihei, Minister of the Left. Sugawara is arrested on a trumped-up charge of plotting to overthrow the emperor and becomes the target of an assassination plot headed by Shihei. Sugawara is exiled to Kyûshû, where he dies cursing Shihei. Ultimately, the villain is slain by the calligrapher's son, Kan Shûsei, the house of Sugawara is restored, and Sugawara is pronounced a deity.
This is an example of a nishiki-e actor portrait set within a simulated wood frame sporting metal mounts. It takes the form of an ema (votive panel: 絵馬) used to offer prayers at Shinto shrines. Although a few other examples with similar portrait backgrounds are known, this type of design in ukiyo-e is rather uncommon, and thus these designs are standouts among yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者絵).
Another impression is housed in the Achenbach Foundation, Fine Art Museums of San Francsco (1976.1.359).
References: Roger Keyes, The Male Journey in Japanese Prints. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989, no. 87; KNP-6, p. 552