Mangetsudō 万月堂 (act. 1740s)
Komachi in the Yoshiwara: A Triptych
(Yoshiwara Komachi Sampukutsui 吉原小町三幅対)

Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), late 1740s
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1991

Despite some questions of attribution raised by its visual similarity to another print in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, this uncut triptych by Mangetsudō offers a touching interpretation of the Yoshiwara through the lens of classical literature. All three of the panels in this triptych juxtapose images of residents in the Yoshiwara with theatrical tales of Ono no Komachi (c. 825 - c. 900), one of the six best waka poets in the early Heian period (794-1185).

The left panel (erroneously labeled “right”) depicts a sumptuously dressed, high-level courtesan. The cartouche above her head refers to an undated Nō play by Zeami (c. 1363 - c. 1443) or Kan’ami (1333-1384) entitled “Komachi Washing the Book” (Sōshi aria Komachi). In the play, Komachi’s rival in a poetry competition steals a copy of her poem, writes it into a copy of the poetry anthology Manyōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, c. 759), and accuses Komachi of plagiarism. To vindicate herself, Komachi washes the page of the anthology in the water of a nearby pond, thereby erasing the newly added ink and exposing her rival’s deceit.

The center panel depicts another high-ranking courtesan with her kamuro (assistant). The cartouche above them refers to the undated, anonymous Nō play “Parrot Komachi” (Ōmu Komachi), in which one of Emperor Yōzei’s messengers visits the elderly Komachi at Sekidera Temple, where she spends her melancholy final years. Reflecting on happier times, the messenger asks, “Was not life enchanting there, within the jeweled curtains?” Komachi offers a “parrot reply,” repeating the question but changing the final syllable, so as to say, “How enchanting life was there!”

The right panel (mistakenly labeled “left”) depicts a female odoriko prostitute dressed in a courtesan’s kimono but also displaying the sword and hairstyle of a wakashū, discussed elsewhere in this exhibition. Historical records show that in 1743, a few years before this print was published, 104 odoriko were arrested for unlicensed prostitution in the Fukugawa area and sentenced to three years of work without remuneration in the Yoshiwara.

The cartouche above the odoriko refers to the 14th century Nō drama “Visiting Komachi” (Kayoi Komachi) by Kan’ami, in which a Buddhist monk encounters the ghosts of Komachi and her lover Fukakusa no Shōshō. Shōshō sorrowfully recalls how Komachi tested his fidelity during their courtship. She asked him to visit her every night for one hundred nights but to sleep in a stable for ox-drawn carriages rather than in her bed. Failing one night to visit her, Shōshō died in despair. After hearing this tale, the Buddhist priest prays for Komachi and Shōshō and assures their spiritual salvation.

Mangetsudō’s comparison between three women of entirely different rank and reputation within the Yoshiwara with three pivotal stages in Komachi’s life is a poignant commentary on the humanity and dignity of the Yoshiwara’s residents.

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