Torii Kiyomasu II
Three Empresses of Poetry: Ono no Komachi (left)

Publisher: Ningyō-chō Hiranoya and (logo) hira; Left plate of a triptych, hosoban, 32.2 x 15.2 cm; urushi-e with metallic pigments

This print originally belonged to a triptych representing the three great female poets of the Heian period. This is the only print that has survived. It depicts Ono no Komachi (9th century), whose tragic life’s story was also the subject of a number of plays. The title on the upper left: Waka no sangō (“Three Empresses of waka Poetry”), is augmented by “Ono Komachi”. In her right hand she is holding a tanzaku with the first verses of one of her famous poems.

Provenance: R.Lane Geyger, inv.no.16367 (KG p.84 / KGE p.94)

This leaf is the only known impression of the woodblock to have survived and was originally part of a triptych with the theme: the three poetesses of Japan’s Middle Ages. Here the poetess Ono-no-Komachi (9th c.) is shown, whose tragic life as a symbol of human growth and decline inspired various Nô plays.
The title of the triptych appears in the cartouche on the upper left: Waka-no-san-gô (“The Three Empresses of Poetry”), with the additional information: “Ono-no-Komachi” and the information that the image should be placed on the left-hand side of the group of three. Another surviving print, which is to be found in the Tôkyô National Museum, bears the name of Soto-ori-hime, one of the three gods of literature. It was placed at the centre. Seven episodes from the life of the poetess Komachi are classified as the Nana-Komachi. Our leaf is based on one of these. The poetess holds a poem-slip (tanzaku) in her hand, on which the first lines of a famous poem appear:

Makanaku ni
No one planted you:

nani wo tane tote
so out of which seed therefore

ukikusa no
have you grown so abundantly

(nami no une une
from the furrows of the waves,

oi shigeruran).
your drifting grasses?

This poem comes from the Nô play Sôshi-arai Komachi (“Komachi washing the poetry book”). It is one of the Nô plays attributed to Kanami, Kiyotsugu (1333-1384). Komachi’s incomparable poetic art provoked the envy of the poet Ôtomo-no-Kuronushi. In order to demonstrate Komachi’s incompetence, he maintained that she had not written a certain poem herself, but had copied it out of the Man’yôshû, the most famous Japanese anthology of poetry (8th c.). As proof, he showed a copy which included the poem. But Komachi washed the book and the poem- newly inserted with fresh ink and with evil intentions by her rival- vanished. In the poem quoted above she comments on this event. Only this one impression of the woodblock has survived. Richard Lane, from whose collection the leaf comes, correctly regards it as one of the most beautiful portrayals of a woman in the Ukiyo-e. The poetess wears several robes over courtly pantaloons. Sleeves and borders are lightly puffed. Large, stylized aoi leaves and blossoms, as well as cherry blossoms, together serve to embellish the kimono with severe geometric patterns. Her long hair, held only by a comb, hangs loosely down over her shoulders. A single strand falls down over her cheek. Robe and hairstyle were depicted by Kiyomasu II as stylized Heian costume. The artist arranged the figure as a vertical triangular composition.