Ashiyuki (active 1813 – 1833) Nakamura Matsue III as Akoya in the Play Dan no Ura Kabuto Gunki, 1829
This lovely print… a rare and early Osaka triptych in oban format shows three actors (all male, despite appearances), the centre of which is holding a small but complicated drum. The play is almost certainly Akoya, and was originally written for the puppet theatre. Only the one scene survives in which Akoya is the courtesan lover of Kagekiyo who is on the run and in hiding. She is hauled before the court and threatened with torture to reveal the whereabouts of her lover. When she refuses, three instruments of torture are brought to the stage yet she still refuses. Next, three musical instruments are brought on and the official, Shigetada, demands that she play them. She performs three songs about her love of Kagekiyo so beautifully that Shigetada is convinced that someone who sings so movingly could not also be a liar. The play ends with him confronting the evil torturer Munetsura.
The drum that the actor is playing is an eccentric thing called a Tsuzumi. It consists of a wooden body shaped like an hourglass and it is taut, with two drum heads and cords that can be squeezed or released to increase or decrease the tension of the heads. This allows the player to raise or lower the pitch while playing. It is the care of the instrument that is peculiar. The drum heads must be exposed to moisture to produce a desirable sound. Before playing the tsuzumi, the player will breathe very close to the head that will be struck. Sometimes he will even take some saliva and apply it to the head of the drum. The quality of sound will depend on how much moisture is in the atmosphere where it is being played. To make sure the drum heads are moist, the player will breathe into the drum head at intervals when he is not playing.
The tsuzumi drum appears again in this lovely print above by Kunichika.The print shows the actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX in the role of Sato Tadanobu, a retainer of the hero Yoshitsune. He rescues Yoshitsune’s lover, Shikuza Gozen from Yoshitzune’s brother Yoritomo. In the popular folk tale and the kabuki play (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees, Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura), all is not as it seems. Tadanobu (later called Genkuro) is an adopted name and the character Danjuro plays is in fact a kitsune – a shape shifting fox-spirit. Late in the play when Tadanobu is challenged he reveals that the drum carried by Yoshitsune is made from the skins of his parents who died four hundred years previously. He has taken the form of Tadanobu in order to retrieve the object. At the conclusion, the fox spirit departs dramatically to a flamboyant dance, returning later to defend Yoshitsune once more.