The play Keisei haru no tori (Courtesan: A bird in spring: 契情青陽𪆐) was written by the actor-turned-playwright Tatsuoka Mansaku (1742-1809), premiering at the Kado Theater in 1794. It was a complex jidaimono ("period piece" or history play: 時代物) in seven acts with twenty-three scenes dramatizing events surrounding the defeat of the historical Akechi Mitsuhide (1526–82) by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–98), who then suppressed the country’s remaining warring clans and nearly unified Japan. As was the convention in popular theater of the time, names were changed and events modified to avoid violation of censorship edicts. The sprawling drama featured conspiracies, murder, attempted assassination, faked identities, and double suicide.
This print commeorates the shûmei ("succession to a name": 襲名) in which Nakamura Shikan II (中村芝翫) ascended to the most illustrious theatrical name in Kamigata — Nakamura Utaemon (中村歌右衛門), thereby becoming the fourth actor in the lineage.
In Hokuei’s dynamic design, Shikan lifts an elegantly adorned lacquered kago (palanquin: 駕籠 or 駕) over his left shoulder, his legs spread wide in a stabilizing stance. The actor’s prodigious show of strength must have been a crowd pleaser — although, for the stage, the kago would have been constructed of thin, lightweight woods. This illusion from the play, with the figure of Shikan set dramatically against a black sky, seems to have inspired Hokuei to select this particular moment for his design as a symbolic demonstration of Shikan’s worthiness (i.e., strength in acting skills) to succeed to the illustrious Utaemon name.
References: WAS-4, no. 568 (inv 016-0684); IKBYS-II (2-372; inv H248); Tokyo Metropolitan Library, #4647-042); FSG, #65