Kanadehon chûshingura (Writing manual of the treasury of loyal retainers: 假名手本忠臣蔵, often called "The Forty-seven Rônin") was a perennial favorite in the kabuki theater and is still often performed today. This masterpiece was based on actual events taking place in 1703, when former retainers of the lord of Akô, Asano Naganori, exacted revenge by murdering Lord Kira Yoshinaka, who had manipulated events to force their lord into seppuku (lit., "incision of the abdomen," ritual suicide: 切腹). The theatrical version of this rousing tale involves a vendetta by the retainers of Enya Hangan (a provincial daimyô) who committed seppuku after a confrontation incited by the malicious Kô no Moronao (a chief councilor to the Shogun). The rônin ("floating men" or masterless samurai: 浪人) were led by Ôboshi Yuranosuke, who is portrayed above in Sadamasu's design.
Kabuki actors often performed multiple roles in a single production, although only the most highly skllled performers could tackle more than one important character. The assignment of multiple Chûshingura roles, ranging from two to seven, seems to have varied according to the production, skill level of the actors, and other factors. One of the earliest recorded seven-change (nanabake) performances was given by Ichikawa Danzô II at the Kado Theater, Osaka in 1802.
In the first month of 1838, Utaemon IV was involved in a wage dispute with the management of the Naka Theater, and he shocked his many fans by deciding to leave abruptly for Edo (he would not return to Osaka for more than a decade). For his farewell performance, Utaemon played seven key Chûshingura roles: Yuranosuke (as here in Sadamasu's design), Sadakurô, Kanpei, Ko no Moronao, Tonase, Kazuemon, and Gihei. The play provided a vehicle for an impressive hengemono ("transformation piece: 変化物) due to its varied cast of characters and the combined length of its eleven acts. Sadamasu also designed two other ôban prints for this performance, with Utaemon IV in the roles of Sadakurô and Kanpei. It all amounted to a bravura performance and a grand farewell to Utaemon's devoted fans.
Yuronosuke is shown crouching down by a wall enclosing Moronao's compound. His famous crest of tomoe (double commas: 巴) can be seen on both his gray outer robe (kamishimo: 裃) and blue inner robe (noshime: 熨斗目).
This example of Sadamasu's print offers a full-size image with margins visible on two sides and in the lower right corner. On some impressions of this design the seals of two of the finest artisans of the period — the block carver hori Kumazô and the printer suri Toyosaburô — flank the seal of the publisher Honsei, but in this impression, the Toyosaburô seal has been cut from the keyblock. Presumably, the task of printing this edition fell to a different professional printer.
References: IKBYS-III, no. 115; KUN, no. 184; KNP-6, p. 366; IKB-I, no. 2-451; NKE, p. 271; Sadamasu web page