The play Hachijin shugo no honjô (Eight battle arrays to protect Honjô Castle: 八陣守護城北堀江) was written for Bunraku (puppet theater: 文楽) by Nakamura Gyôgen and Sagawa Tôta, an eleven-act jidaimono (history play: 時代物) premiering in 9/1807 at the Ônishi Theater, Osaka. It was adapted for kabuki in 1808 (both in Kyoto and Osaka) and then for Edo in 1810. The play is no longer staged in its entirety, but three scenes are still performed today: the Dokushu no ba ("poisoned saké scene": 毒酒場) and Gozabune no ba (Daimyô boat scene: 御座船場) in Act IV, and the Honjô no ba (Inner castle scene: 本城場) in Act VIII.
Katô Masakiyo (加藤正清) was based on the historical Katô Kiyomasa (加藤清正 1562-1611), a warlord who served Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉, 1537-1598), the daimyô (feudal lord: 大名) who is known today as Japan's "Second Great Unifier." The son of a blacksmith, Kiyomasa became legendary for his ferocity in battle, winning respect and power from his mid-twenties on until he commanded part of the Toyotomi forces in the Korean campaigns of 1592 and 1597. In kabuki, his tale takes an ominous turn when circumstances force Masakiyo (the dramaturgical Kiyomasa) to meet with Kitabatake, a theatrical stand-in for the shôgun Tokugawa Ieyasu ((徳川家康 1543-1616), whose explicit portrayal in theater or literature was banned by the shogunate. Kitabatake gives Masakiyo a poisoned cup of saké, which he drinks, knowing it will be fatal. The episode is known as the aforementioned Dokushu no ba. Masakiyo nevertheless manages to stay alive for months to protect his lord until he finally succumbs to the deadly brew.
Ôkubi-e ("large-head pictures": 大首絵) by Hokushû are among the glories of Osaka printmaking. The ôkubi-e offered here, in particular, is much admired and one of the earliest examples of such a design in ôban format. Another impression from the British Museum was included in the landmark 2006 exhibition catalog, Kabuki Heroes on the Osaka Stage, 1780-1830 (see reference KHO below).
Nakamura Utaemon's formal black daimon ("large crest": 大紋) robe was worn for the poisoned saké scene in Act IV. The impressive costume along with the makeup called kumadori ("painting the shadows": 隈取) resulted in a splendid visual display. The particular style of akattsura or akazura ("red-face": 赤面 or 赭面) in the aragoto manner ("rough stuff": 荒事) shown here was called shikan suji (Shikan sinews: 芝翫筋) named after Utaemon's poetry name, Shikan (芝翫). For a full view of the magnificent robe, see Yoshikuni YSK24.
The poem reads as follows (trans. by Roger Keyes): Sekaijû / kagayaku tsuki no / Kiyomasa wa / janome o akete / araitaru gei (Kiyomasa is the moon / Shining on the world / at midday: An art of piercing insight: 世かい中かゞやく月の清正は蛇の目をあくてあらひたる芸); poet: Chôsokusai Fuminari (烏足齋文成). Keyes wrote that the poem puns upon "Kiyomasa's bull's-eye crest [the "janome" or "snake's eye" (蛇の目) circle partly visible on the sleeves], his foreknowledge of Kitabatake's plot, and Utaemon's perceptive acting of the role."
Published commentaries (e.g., OK and TWOP refs. below) claim that the earliest impressions of this design have a yellow ground, seals of the artist and poet, and a hexagonal pattern on the white ribbon of the headgear. Confusingly, some yellow-background impressions include the names of the actor and role, while others do not (e.g., Philadelphia Museum of Art). Purportedly, second-edition impressions have a blue background and include the actor and role names at the upper left, plus they substitute a zigzag pattern for the hexagons on the white ribbon. Even later editions lack the artist and poet seals. The final(?) edition has the publisher seal of Izutsuya Denbei (井筒屋伝兵衞). Even so, some blue-background impressions appear to have better-preserved keyblock lines than what are supposed to be earlier impressions with yellow backgrounds and no actor/role names. In our opinion, further research is warranted to sort out the sequence of editions.
Our impression is from an early edition with the thin lines of the nose and eyelids still sharp and unbroken. There is only slight trimming at the top and bottom, with a full margin on the left and overall size very good. Most surviving impressions have more pronounced trimming. Even when considering all of Hokushû's extraordinary ôkubi-e published from 3/1820 to 7/1826 (21 known designs), this example is one of the finest — an iconic portrayal of Osaka's reigning superstar at the height of his powers performing in one of his most celebrated roles, indeed, one in which he triumphed on kabuki stages in both Osaka and Edo. The close-up focus on the actor's face and black robe captures the emotional intensity of the performance and the visual impact that Utaemon's costume must have had on his enraptured audiences. This work, which is not often available for acquisition (it is the first time we have offered it on our website), should be on the list of most desirable Hokushû prints for every serious collector.
- KHO, p. 207, no. 187
- TWOP (Philadelphia Museum of Art), pp. 68-69 (pl. 14), cat. no. 195a (inv. no. 69-208-194a blue background); and cat. no. 195b (inv. no. 69-208-194b yellow background)
- OK, p. 35, no. 23.
- OSP, p. 73, no. 28
- British Museum, no. 203.8-21.01
- Library of Congress, Call Number: FP 2 - JPD, no. 2179.
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (two imps., acc. #11.38800 and 1.26603)
- Yonemura et al., Masterful Illusions (2002), no. 45.
- Tokyo National Museum, TNM Ukiyo-e cat. 3 (1963), #3925
- NKE, pp. 137-138