A courtesan’s debut was a very big and costly event. Girls were expected to buy their dresses, beds, etc. with their own money, but a first-time courtesan with no regular clients yet simply could not afford such luxurious items. For the honor of being a girl’s first client, a man was expected to pay a large sum to cover the daily necessities that she didn’t yet have. Part of this included the cost of three futons for the courtesan to sleep on, or in the case of highest-class oiran, five futons. Four futons wasn’t a common number, but oddly Kyōden’s illustration shows Uondo sleeping on four. This could be a symbol that she’s not really human, not really fish, and doesn’t quite fit in either world.
I love Kyōden’s illustration on this page. There are a lot of small details which add to the scene, including an incense burner next to the bed, to mask the mermaid’s fishy smell. The customer is holding his wallet as he tries to escape, and his pillow has rolled off the bed onto the floor in his rush to leave. The kurogo’s desperation is palpable, yet the mermaid looks so peaceful and innocent asleep in her bed.
After her oiran debut, Uondo took her first customer. The lights were turned out to make the room as dark as possible. The kurogo hid behind a folding screen and acted as her arms, lighting her pipe and smoking it, and so on. Somehow the illusion worked, and she passed as a human. But in the end, she still smelled like a fish and her client was unable to bear it. He frantically tried to escape from the room. The mermaid, exhausted from her debut, quickly fell asleep. Meanwhile, the kurogo grabbed on to the client to keep him from leaving. This only scared him even more, as Uondo’s arms seemed to stretch all the way into the hallway even though her head remained on the pillow.
Customer: “What kind of monster is this prostitute?! How long must her arms be to reach me all the way from the bed?!”
We’ve already seen Santō Kyōden break the fourth wall a couple of times and address the readers directly. He goes a step further on this page, and actually places himself in the novel here. Kyōden and his friend are depicted here, sitting and smoking on the veranda of a tea shop while watching Uondo’s oiran procession pass by.
Kyōden: “So that’s the new prostitute, huh? She really does have a pretty face! But her walking style is a little funny. Don’t you think so, Kokugashi¹?”
One of the kamuro² is chatting with Uondo: “Wasn’t there a guy named Jingorō in Edoya³?”
The name Kokugashi here is a shout out to Kyōden’s colleague and friend Umebori Kokuga. Kokuga was a novelist who was famed for his depictions of the romances between Yoshiwara’s prostitutes and their customers. Using the nickname Kokugashi and placing him in the book shows how friendly the two were.
Kamurowere young girls who were sold by their parents to brothels in order to pay off their debts. They had to work until their own debt was then repaid. They were apprenticed to oiran who were responsible for feeding, clothing, sheltering, and managing them. Kamuro were dressed beautifully, like little toys, and mostly worked as attendants, messengers, and escorts to their caretakers. As it was quite expensive to feed and dress them, having a kamuro was a great status symbol for an oiran. Only the wealthiest oiran could afford to care for more than one kamuro.
This sentence is a bit of a mystery. It sounds like another one of Kyōden’s name drops, but who this person was is now unknown. One possibility: there was a teahouse in Yoshiwara called Edoya Jinzaburō which specialized in introducing clients to prostitutes. This line might be a sly reference to it.
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.