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Triptych of Loving Couples Playing a Trio of Musical Instruments” (Sanpukutsui hiyoku no sankyoku)

Nishimura Shigenaga Japanese

Not on view

This uncut triptych of prints creates a tableau of six of the most famous Kabuki actors of the mid-eighteenth century, and playfully depicts them as courtesans and their clients within a reception room of a Yoshiwara brothel. Each print also highlights a different traditional Japanese musical instrument, as suggested by the term sankyoku 三曲 in the title cartouche on each print, referring to an “ensemble of three musical instruments.” Hiyoku ひよく, also incorporated in to each title, but written in kana, derives from the Chinese expression biyi shuang fei 比翼雙飛 (Japanese: hiyoku sōhi) referring to the legend of a pair of male and female birds, each with one eye and one wing, that are destined to always fly together as a joined pair. Over time, the term came to refer to couples in love, or a courtesan and her patron. Here the artist cleverly suggests the idea of hiyoku, or “a shared wing,” by having each couple perform a duet, but on a single musical instrument. Of course, all of the actors here are men, but most of them were renowned for their ability to take on the appearance and persona in roles as women or effeminate young men. While the actors here are not depicted in any specific roles, the crests on their robes allow us to identify them.

On the right, Onoe Kikugorō I (1717–1784) as a wakashu (effeminate young man) and Segawa Kikunojō I (1693–1749) in the raiment of a Yoshiwara courtesan perform as a duo, with the former fingering a fiddle-like instrument called a kokyū while the latter handles the bow. In the center, Nakamura Shichisaburō II (1703–1774) poses as a Yoshiwara patron fingering the three-string shamisen while Arashi Koroku I (1710–1786), posing as a courtesan, strums the instrument with a plectrum . Finally, on the left, Sanogawa Ichimatsu I (1722–1762) takes the role of a young courtesan gently blowing on a yokobue (transverse flute), holding it with one hand, while Takinaka Hidematsu I (fl. mid-18th c.) holds the end of the instrument with one hand. The erotic suggestiveness of each vignette was certainly intended by the artist.

Triptych of Loving Couples Playing a Trio of Musical Instruments” (Sanpukutsui hiyoku no sankyoku), Nishimura Shigenaga (Japanese, 1697–1756), Triptych of woodblock prints (benizuri-e); ink and color on paper; uncut hosoban, Japan

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