Yoshitsune no koshigoe-jô (Yoshitsune’s Koshigoe petition:義經腰越状), a five-act jidaimono ("period pieces" or history plays: 時代物) written by Namiki Eisuke for the puppet theater (bunraku or ningyô jôruri), premiered at the Takemoto no Shibai, Osaka in 7/1754. It was an adaptation of at least two earlier plays, Nanbantetsu Gotô no menuki (1735) and Yoshitsune shin fukumijô (1744). Controversy surrounded the first performance when Act IV was banned because the portrayal of Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝, 1147-1199) was considered too suggestive of the actual reigning shôgun. Thus the act was dropped and only the first three were premiered; then, in 1770, Act IV was revised by Toyotake Ôtsu.
Typical for Edo-period theatricals, the plot was placed back in a distant era and multiple sekai ("world" or theatrical setting: 世界) were implied. In this instance the setting was the Kamakura period (1192-1333), while the protagonists were meant to suggest analogues of Edo-period figures. For example, Yoshitsune stood in for Toyotomi Hideyori (豊臣 秀頼, 1593-1615) and Yoritomo for the first shôgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu ((徳川 家康, 1543-1616). Events were intended to echo the overthrow of Osaka Castle in 1615 by Ieyasu. The inaugural kabuki version premiered in 1761 at the Arashi no Shibai, Osaka; Edo waited nearly three decades before its first adaptation in 1790 at the Ichimura-za.
The action involves Minamoto no Yoshitsune (源義経, 1159-1189), the brilliant young general of the Minamoto (Genji: 源) clan whose miltary exploits near the end of the Genpei Wars (1160-1185) changed the course of Japanese history. His half brother and ruler of Kamakura, Yoritomo, became suspicious of Yoshitsune, believing some of his actions treasonous. He sent his forces to capture or kill Yoshitsune, eventually forcing his younger brother to commit seppuku (suicide: 切腹). (The historical record is inconclusive regarding the causes of the rift between the two brothers, but posterity has judged Yoritomo harshly, charging him with overweening ambition and a suspicious nature. There is a "Koshigoe Letter" in which Yoshitsune denounced the slander leveled at him and declared his loyalty to the Minamoto and Yoritomo.) In the play, Yoshitsune is estranged from Yoritomo after the latter's ally and spy Kajiwara no Kagetoki (梶原 景時, c.1140-1200) spreads lies about Yoshitsune's intentions. Having fled from the village of Koshigoe to the Horikawa mansion, Yoshitsune delays further flight from the dangers posed by Yoritomo's fast-approaching army and gives himself over obsessively to the "sparrow dance" (suzume odori), much to the displeasure and concern of his faithful retainers.
Gotôbei, once a retainer of Kiso [Minamoto] no Yoshinaka (源義仲, 1154-1184), became a rônin ("wave man" or masterless samurai: 浪人) after Toshinaka's defeat by Yoritomo. He supports himself as a maker of menuki ( sword-handle ornaments: 目貫) in Fushimi village, but appears to be an incorrigible drunkard. In reality, his depravity is a ruse to misdirect conspirators within Yoshitsune's ranks. After his true nature is revealed, Gotôbei agrees to serve as Yoshitsune's strategist and raise an army to fight Yoritomo. The role of Gotôbei is much admired in the kabuki repertory, as the actor must display progressive drunkenness until his transformation into an upstanding warrior.
Gotôbei sits by a railing and leans against a sake bucket during one of the scenes in which he feigns dissipation, performed as a dance of the Yamamura school (Yamamura ryû: 山村流), whose founder was the actor and choreographer Yamamura Tomogorô I (1781–1845; 山村吾斗), later called Yamamura Goto (山村吾斗). The rectangular cartouche at the far right includes the inscription isse ichidai (once in a lifetime performance: 一世一代). Due to an recurring leg injury and serious illness, Utaemon had announced his farewell performance, prematurely, as it turned out, for he continued acting in Kamigata until his death in 7/1838. Nevertheless, news of Utaemon's "retirement" sent Osaka theater fans and publishers into a frenzy, with artists from the highest ranks to the lowest issuing print designs featuring Utaemon IV in large numbers.
Provenance: This impression is from the Haber Collection, illustrated in Schwaab (Osaka Prints, 1989, no. 77). Prints from this collection are admired for their fine color preservation, and often for their rarity, as with this design.
References: OSP, no. 77; HKE, p. 707