Monogusa Tarô recounts the amusing story of a lazy commoner who improbably achieves fame, fortune, and aristocratic status after leaving his village for the capital. It is an example from a literary genre called otogi zôshi ("Tales told by a companion" or "The companion book": 御伽草子), a grouping of around 350 prose narratives (or as many as 500, depending on how they are defined and categorized), mostly from the Muramachi period (1392–1573) but extending into the Edo period (1603-1868). Monogusa Tarô was one of 23 tales collected and published in the early 18th century, titled Otogi bunko (御伽文庫), and republished as Otogi zôshi in 1801. Stories such as Monogusa Tarô also fall, more specifically, within a type called rissen shusse (triumph or rising up in life: 立身出世). Otogi zôshi were the forerunners of Edo-period kana zôshi (story books in kana 仮名 script: 仮名草子) and ukiyo zôshi (story books of the floating world: 浮世草子). Once introduced, otogi zôshi became generalized to include a large body of popular stories such as folk-tales and didactic narratives.
The kabuki play Monogusa Tarô was written by Nagawa Shimesuke I (奈川七五三助 1754-1814), the Osaka-born son of a teahouse owner in the Dôtonbori theater district. His most enduring play is Sumidagawa gonichi no omokage (A duplicate countenance at the Sumida River: 隅田川続俤) from 1784. In the present drama, the role of Fuwa Banzaemon (不破伴左衛門), who was frequently featured in kabuki plays, was based on an actual sixteenth-century samurai. He was purportedly a rival-in-love with another samurai named Nagoya Sansaburô (名古屋山三郎 died 1603). Sansaburô's father was Nagoya Takahisa, governor of Inaba province, and his mother Yôun'in, a niece of Oda Nobunaga (1534-82; the warlord who initiated the unification of Japan under the Shogunate in the late sixteenth century). Supposedly, Sansaburô was a lover of Izumo no Okuni (出雲の阿国), the founder of Kabuki, but there is no evidence that they actually knew one another. Nevertheless, he was portrayed in plays as her departed lover, and Okuni used him, or rather his "ghost," as a regular character in skits performed by her theatrical troupe. Sansaburô was killed in a brawl in 1603, the year usually given for the official birth of Okuni's kabuki. Among the various Fuwa Nagoya mono (plays about Fuwa and Nagoya: 不和破名古屋) for the puppet and kabuki theaters, some revolved around a conspiracy by Fuwa to usurp control of the Sasaki clan domain by supporting an illegitimate son of the clan's recently deceased lord. In one retelling — Ukiyozuka hiyoku no inazuma (A floating world design: Comparison of matching lightning bolts: 浮世柄比翼稲妻), written in 1823 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV for Ichikawa Danjûrô VII in Edo — Nagoya Sanzaemon (i.e., Sansaburô) was a loyal Sakai retainer who is murdered by Fuwa.
This scene and the presence of Fuwa Banzaemon among the cast of characters suggests that the play conflates two very different sekai ("worlds" or "spheres": 世界), that is, the historical period, setting, or milieu with its varied associations in which kabuki play dramatists situated the events of their dramas. One sekai would be the comical stories surrounding Monogusa Tarô, the other would feature the intrigues involving Sansaburô.
In this staging, Utaemon also performed as Sanza's wife Kazuraki (山三妻かづらき). The role of Monogusa Tarô was played by Nakamura Tamasuke I (中村玉助).
This deluxe impression is finely printed, its colors very well preserved, with a rich application of metallics, making it a truly exceptional survivor.
This impression comes from the much-admired Martin Levitz collection, New York City. Some of the Levitz prints were used to illustrate Schwaab's Osaka Prints (1989).
References: HSH, no. 18