Wearing a striped outer robe over her kimono, a young woman lingers near an empty carriage, her hand delicately touching its roof. The green of the carriage (in this case, actually a litter) matches the color of the woman’s kimono, suggesting a link between the person and the vehicle. The outer robe and headscarf indicate that the scene must occur in cold weather. What we are seeing, then, is perhaps a woman who left her house to take a look at her carriage. But why is she looking at it? And why is her expression downcast, even despondent?
Pictures of the floating world
From the title of this print by ukiyo-e master Utagawa Kunisada I, written in white characters on a black background in the top right corner, we learn that the image is one of a series of seven depictions of contemporaneous women (literally, “modern beauties” or tōsei bijin).
The genre of ukiyo-e (literally translatable as “pictures of the floating world”) comprises paintings and prints, though woodblock prints were its main medium. It flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, supported by Japan’s middle class. Ukiyo-e works were collaborations between painters, publishers, carvers, and printers, with subject matter drawn from the transitory (thus “floating”), but enjoyable worlds of pleasure quarters, the popular theater, and urban life, especially the streets of Edo. Ukiyo-e also featured parodies of classical themes set in contemporaneous circumstances.
A legendary poetess
Here, Kunisada, the artist, represents a modern beauty in the guise of ninth-century poetess Ono no Komachi, the only woman amongst the “six poetry immortals” (rokkasen). Each scene in Kunisada’s “Seven Komachi” series relates a story or anecdote associated with Komachi’s life.
In this print, the empty carriage helps us identify that the specific story being illustrated, out of the aforementioned seven, is the one known as “Visiting Komachi” (Kayoi Komachi). According to legend, Komachi, renowned for her beauty and talent, attracted the attention of many suitors, including General Fukakusa, who sought to become her lover. Komachi tested his devotion by asking him to spend 100 nights outside her door, in the garden, irrespective of weather conditions. He agreed and marked each night on the shaft of her carriage, but died on the last night because of the harsh winter. The scene illustrated in Kunisada’s print may be from the very end of the story, when Komachi learns about his death and goes to see the carriage. Other versions of this story circulated orally in Japan over the centuries, and some were used as plotlines for plays in the Japanese Noh tradition of musical drama.
This image leaves it to the viewer to imagine the inner life of the heroine. Is she remorseful? Is she mourning? However, the print’s title reminds us that the depicted woman is not actually Komachi herself, but someone else, from a later era, who is enacting the role of the poetess. The image refers to the “Visiting Komachi” story through her accoutrements and props (especially the carriage as a stand-in for the missing lover). Considering the multilayered aspect of the subject matter, the gaze of the depicted woman may actually suggest that she is engrossed in thinking about the real Komachi. In providing these references to a larger cultural tradition, Kunisada adds conceptual depth to his portrayal of a beautiful woman.
Pictures within pictures, stories within stories
The artifice of the image is further complicated by the inclusion of a cartouche, or image-within-image (known as gachūga). The gachūga functions like a legend for the “main” image, depicting the “real” Komachi, also clad in outerwear, as well as a poem attributed to her. The choice of color for her outer robe— the same green as the carriage and as the kimono of the “modern beauty”—weaves the two images together and creates a visual rhyme between the historical Komachi and the contemporaneous Komachi. This visual link illustrates the process of channeling the spirit of the poetess.
Placed in the top left corner of the print and framed with floral motifs, the gachūga provides access to another visual realm and calls into question the nature of the space behind the central figure. Is this image-within-image floating in space, as it were, or is it a flat picture affixed to a wall-like surface behind the centrally positioned woman? This ambiguous spatial quality of the image-within-image contributes to the overall richness of the print’s visual message.
A ghostly presence
This form of communication could have also indicated a supernatural dimension, considering the frequent inclusion, in Noh drama, of ghost characters, many of which became subject matter for paintings, prints, and ceramic and lacquer decoration. In the case of Komachi, the ghost character was especially popular because of stories that contrasted her beauty as a young woman with her decaying image in old age; other stories described her as a cold-hearted woman (or “femme fatale”). These characterizations set the stage for plots where Komachi’s ghost returned to the world to act on her inner conflicts. In this print, the inclusion of an image of Komachi and of a woman in the guise of Komachi calls to mind the spectral presence of this legendary character and its plotlines from Noh drama.
In the image-within-image, the figure of Komachi is framed by a waka poem attributed to her. It reads:
iro miede / 色みへて
utsurou mono wa / うつろふものは
yo no naka no / 世の中の
hito no kokoro no / 人のこゝろの
hana ni zo arikeri / 花にぞありけり
I propose the following prose translation as one way of interpreting these lines: “It is by their changing colors that we know the flowers of men’s hearts to fade in this transient world.”
Republished in collections of ancient poems and paired with images of Komachi herself, as in this print, the poem speaks to the connection between the ephemerality of outer appearances and the changes that characterize matters of the heart. This poetic message is at the core of what Komachi came to signify over the centuries in Japanese literary and visual culture.
Layers of legend
The other stories in the “Seven Komachi” series resonate with this poetic message, too. For example, “Sekidera Komachi ” invokes a story according to which an aged Komachi forgets about her fading beauty by dancing with a child on the occasion of the stars festival (Tanabata). The episode serves as a reminder of the ephemeral and cyclical nature of life, and it was also used by multiple artists, including Kunisada, as a pretext for depicting beautiful women in guise of the poetess.
With no historical evidence to prove the accuracy of any of these narratives, the poems, plays, and images representing Ono no Komachi merged in the Japanese collective imagination, to form a composite legendary character. The Komachi motif occasioned visual representations that playfully combined it with contemporaneous elements, as is the case with Kunisada’s Kayoi Komachi print.
Kunisada’s series is only one of several ukiyo-e series that use Komachi-associated stories in conjunction with some aspect of contemporaneous life and society (for instance, courtesans in guise of Komachi, young theater actors in the role of Komachi, or pairs of beautiful women in landscapes that evoke the seven stories). Such images spanned multiple centuries and media, from folding screens to painted shells to lacquer boxes, epitomizing the wide circulation of staple motifs and the intimate connection between literature and the visual arts in Japanese culture.