Today’s illustration is another double page spread, showing the street during Uondo’s debut as an oiran. Onlookers peek out of tea shops and comment about the procession. The Maizuruya staff is shown surrounding Uondo, helping to disguise her so that she appears more or less human. Note the fake feet dangling from her kimono, and the kurogocarrying her and acting as her arms. Maybe the onlookers don’t notice him behind all of the attendants. Or maybe they ignore him because everyone knows you’re supposed to pretend that kurogo are invisible.
So Denzō’s plan went in to effect, and Yoshiwara’s very first mermaid oiran made her debut¹ at dusk, when it was dimly lit. He positioned a kurogo behind her to act as a pair of arms, and somehow the trick worked and everyone was fooled. Don’t make me say in writing that this is where the word ningyō tsukai² comes from!
An oiran’s debut was a big event. When a girl was ready to make her official debut as the highest ranking courtesan, brothels would put on a major show of it. The oiran would wear heavy, multilayered kimono, a massive wig, and extremely high platform shoes. It was extremely difficult to walk through the streets like this, and it was a sign of her professionalism and grace. There would be with a large parade, with music, revelers, and onlookers on either side. She would be accompanied by her own attendants, and followed by her lower ranking brothel sisters. Here’s a modern day reenactment so you can get a feel of what it would have looked like.
Kyōden breaks the fourth wall here to forcefully insert this really awful pun. Ningyo tsukai means “puppetmaster.” It sounds almost exactly like ningyō tsukai, “a person who uses mermaids.” The kurogo is operating the mermaid like a puppet; or perhaps Denzō is the puppetmaster for organizing this whole spectacle.
One of the cool things about these kind of old books is that they have a rudimentary form of speech bubbles. They can be hard to see amidst all of the cursive text covering the page, but you can see marks that look similar to a modern Japanese quotation mark which mark off the speech bubbles: ﹁
They don’t connect to the character’s mouths or faces the way that modern speech bubbles do, so it can also sometimes be hard to know who is speaking—although you can usually tell from the context.
Today’s post covers the speech bubbles appearing in this two-page spread.
Denzō: “Don’t tell the other girls, but I bought a mermaid for seven and a half ryō. That’s probably even cheaper than a fresh bonito!”
Denzō: “We’ll hide the fact that you don’t have legs by using these leggings. As for your hair, instead of a shinobuwage¹ let’s try a yokohyōgo² to make you look taller. I ordered you a kimono from Kyūrin³ so no need to worry about that.”
Hairdresser: “The master always acts without thinking. I’m sure this plan of his will fail as well…”
Shinobuwagewas a popular ladies’ hairstyle in Edo during the late 1700’s. It had a large topknot and two draping side parts. It was especially popular among the women of the Yoshiwara red light district.
Yokohyōgowas a very showy hairstyle that used lots of pins to make a broader shape than the shinobuwage. It was a symbol of high status.
The author of this book, Santō Kyōden, was a frequent visitor to the Yoshiwara pleasure district, and his work shows that he knew the area well. Kyūrin was the business name of a famous embroider in Asakusa. He was a refined and tasteful man whose real name was Katabamiya Kyūbē. Kyūbē even acted as a matchmaker, introducing Kyōden to the Yoshiwara girl whom he married. This little namedrop might serve as a plug or as thanks to Kyūbē for his help.
Today’s page features another two-spread illustration which shows a large scene in Denzō’s brothel. Business seems to be doing well. Denzō has an expensive looking shrine (this extravagance is more of a public-facing shrine for show than for actual worship), servants, as well as a 72-liter cask of Sesshū Otokoyama sake. You can still buy this sake today, so check your favorite liquor store!
Denzō, the owner of the brothel Maizuruya, purchased the mermaid for the sum of seven and a half ryō. He was the kind of man who wanted to do something strange and unique that nobody else had done before. He came up with what he thought was a brilliant idea: he named the mermaid Uondo¹, and rather than put her through training, he began to plan for her immediate debut as an oiran².
Uondo is written 魚人, which is ningyo (人魚) backwards. It literally means “fish person.” Her name fits the pattern for stage names of some of Yoshiwara’s most famous courtesans, such as Matsundo (“pine person”) of Matsubaya brothel and Hanando (“flower person”) of the Ōgiya brothel.
Oiran is the highest rank of courtesan. They were extremely high-status prostitutes, widely regarded for their beauty. They wore elaborate and expensive hair and dress styles, and were frequently depicted like pinup girls in woodblock prints.
Today our little mermaid does the unthinkable! She signs a contract and joins a brothel. Hopefully her new owner will be as kind to her as Heiji was…
I really like Kyōden’s illustration because of the way the mermaid holds the pen in her mouth to write on the wall. The “mermaids have no hands” joke is being played pretty heavily by Kyōden, but I feel like the fact that he keeps hammering it makes the stupidity of it that much more amusing.
The mermaid signed a contract with Denzō while Heiji was away. She wanted to leave a note with the money she had received, but she had no arms so she couldn’t write.
However, while she couldn’t move as gracefully as Namakura Tomijūrō¹ in Musume dōjōji, she held a brush in her mouth and did her best to write, dripping and splattering ink everywhere.
Mermaid’s note: “I’m leaving this note to let you know that I²…”
Denzō: “Why, you write so skillfully! You’re just like an Arima doll brush³!”
Nakamura Tomijūrō was an actor famous for his beautiful onnagata style and renowned for his theatrical elocution and light, graceful dancing. His greatest performance was Kyōga no ko musume dōjōji, a kabuki rendition of the noh play Dōjōji. This seems like another gratuitous name drop by Kyōden, but it does show us how important the day’s pop culture was in selling copies of these books.
The mermaid’s note is reminiscent of the note that Kuzunoha writes when she left her home. Both of them are supernatural creatures who loved their husbands and wrote a goodbye note on the shoji before leaving.
Arima doll brushes are a tradition toy/craft from Hyōgo Prefecture. They are decorative brush pens with a mechanical trick inside that causes a little doll’s head to pop out of the end when you write and disappear back into the pen when you lay the brush down. The mermaid sort of looks like one, with her human head on her colorful scaled body. There’s also a pun here that doesn’t translate into English, conflating ningyō (doll) with ningyo (mermaid).
Pages 14 and 15 share a double page illustration. The whole spread is posted below.
Notice the byōbu in Heiji’s home which depicts the famous Ōtsue, oni no kannebutsu. Although it’s not part of the story, it seems like it could be a subtle hint from Kyōden. One of the ways to interpret this painting is that even a monster like an oni has the capability to achieve salvation. Maybe it’s a hint that even an orphaned mermaid can make something good out of her life if she tries hard enough. Or maybe it’s just a popular image that Kyōden liked and put in the illustration…
Also note the palanquin used by Denzō to visit the mermaid. While Heiji lives in poverty, with crumbling walls and not even a proper dining table, Denzō has his own door-to-door taxi service. The difference in wealth is apparent.
When the coins fell from the sky, the mermaid was overcome with joy and cried, “Oh thank you! Thank you!” Of course, as she had no arms, she could not pick up the coins.
Anyway, the man who actually dropped the coins was none other than Denzō, the owner of a nearby brothel. He had spied the mermaid’s beautiful face from a distance and thought he could make good money if she would work for him as a courtesan. Since her body was a fish, her fee would only be the head price¹.
And so, Denzō welcomed the mermaid into his brothel for the market price of seven and a half ryō.
When a woman was caught cheating on her husband, her lover would have to pay the husband a compensation fee called a kubidai (“head price”). The standard head price was seven and a half ryō (the amount Denzō scattered on the floor in yesterday’s episode). Denzō’s offer for the mermaid’s head only is a pun based on this term.
Today’s page is very silly, but without a bit of explanation it makes very little sense. Everything that happens in this scene is a parody of Hirakana seisuiki, a popular play at the time. Not only does the mermaid sing one of the songs from the play, but her neighbor appears and starts acting like a stage hand. Theater was a huge part of Edo’s urban culture, and Kyōden is leaning heavily into that with all of his theater gags and references. He will keep using these same gags throughout the rest of the book.
The mermaid worried herself sick trying to come up with a plan. Finally, she remembered a famous scene from the play Hirakana seisuiki, in which the character Umegae strikes a water basin resembling the Muken no Kane¹ and three hundred ryō² rain down upon her.
“I may be a lowly mermaid, but my love for my husband is no less than Umegae’s. I’m sure there’s someone out there with three hundred ryō who would be willing to give me seven or eight. I don’t have a water basin, so I’ll use the fishbowl instead³.”
The mermaid went to fetch a ladle to strike the fishbowl, but this only made her more upset because she didn’t have arms and could not pick up a ladle. But then, a man appeared behind her and, acting like a kurogo⁴, started to help. He picked up the ladle, raised it overhead, and he struck the fishbowl. It was so overgrown with weeds that it looked more like a mizugei⁵, so it didn’t quite have the desired effect.
Even so, lo and behold! Several gold coins and some spare change really did start to fall!
Muken no Kane was a legendary magical bell that, if you strike it, will make you rich in this world; but in exchange, you will go immediately to hell when you die. Its name translates very coolly into “Infinity Bell,” which sounds like it could be some sort of Marvel plot device; but another equally cool translation would be “Hell’s Bell.”
A ryōwas a large gold coin used during the Edo period. It was a very large amount of money.
This is another fish pun. Instead of a chōzubachi (water bowl) she uses a kingyobachi (goldfish bowl)
A kurogois a stagehand used in jōruri and other types of theater. They dress in all black and work on stage by holding props or moving scenery. They and are meant to be read as invisible/ignored by the audience.
Mizugei is a type of water acrobatics/stage magic performance that was popular at sideshows and in entertainment districts. Here’s an example. Yet another one of many references scattered throughout this book to theater and spectacle shows of which petrified mermaids were a common part.
If this were a Disney story, you’d expect there to be a song by now. Well, in this scene, the mermaid sings a song lamenting her poverty. The lyrics are about loan interest, pawn shop markups, and rent payments, and are a parody of lines from Hirakana seisuiki, a popular jōruriplay. The picture is full of clues to this play that close readers would have picked up on, in addition to the lyrics being a dead giveaway. The towel draped over the folding screen is printed with the crest of Segawa Kikunojō, an actor who won great acclaim for his portrayal of the play’s character Umegae. And the fishbowl on the veranda is labeled as being a replacement for a water basin, a key prop in the play. I’ll talk more about the theatrical connection in tomorrow’s post.
Heiji was poor to begin with, but a day came where he was especially in trouble because his rent was overdue, and he also had to repay a loan. The mermaid felt sorry for him and wanted to find some way to repay him for all he had done for her. But in this day and age, when even humans are struggling to make ends meet, how can a mermaid expect to earn a few coins? Having grown up under the sea, the obvious idea of making money as a freak show attraction never even occurred to her.
Singing: “Two eights is sixteen, that’s the interest on the loan. Two nines is eighteen, that’s the pawn shop’s markup. Four fives is twenty, that’s the rent. I can’t even afford a belt¹.”
This is a direct parody of lyrics sung by the character Chidori in a scene from Hirakana seisuiki. Chidori laments her lover’s poverty and tries to come up with a plan to help him pay off his debts—just as the mermaid is doing here. Ultimately, Chidori takes a job working as a prostitute named Umegae to earn extra money.