The play Kokusenya kassen (Battles of Kokusenya: 国性爺合戦), written by Japan's great Edo-period playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), has long been considered a masterpiece of Bunraku (puppet theater 文楽). First staged in 1715 at the Takemoto no Shibai, Osaka, it remains unsurpassed as the most successful play in the history of the puppet theater. Kabuki also produced many adaptations, starting in 1716 at the Miyako Mandayû Theater in Kyoto.
The hero Watônai Sankan, a fisherman by trade, was also the son of Ikkan, a former Ming minister named Tei Shiryû who had been exiled to Japan. Trained in military strategy, Watônai travels to China to aid a princess named Sendan, the younger sister of the Chinese emperor murdered by the Tartars. Watônai vows to fulfill his father's promise to restore the Ming dynasty and place Sendan on the throne. He and Ikkan travel to China, where they find Ikkan's daughter and Watônai's half-sister, Kinshôjô, married to a general named Kanki, of Ming ancestry but allied with the Tartars. In the most celebrated scene of the play, the so-called beni nagashi shishigajô ("the red signal inside the castle"), Kinshôjô, who is loyal to her father and Watônai, agrees to ask Kanki to join Watônai. However, she has them wait outside the Lion Castle for a sign of her husband's intentions: a powder — white for "yes" and red for "no" — to be tossed into cascading water flowing down to the castle moat. Kanki is sympathetic to her request but cannot take advice from a woman on military matters, as it would bring shame upon himself and his descendents. He is also bound by a promise he has made to the Tartars to kill Watônai. Always the warrior, Kanki considers murdering his wife to quell any rumors of his being a coward, but is dissuaded by Kinshôjô's stepmother (Watônai's Japanese mother, who was allowed to enter the castle to plead their cause). Upon seeing the "red signal," Watônai bursts into the Lion Castle to confront Kanki, but the two quickly become allies and Watônai is given the name Kokusenya, Lord of Enpei.
Sadanobu's depiction of Arashi Rikan III as Watônai is from a set of three prints, each featuring actors in different plays, the others being Jitsukawa Ensaburô as Sôma Ryômon in Sôma Tarô mibae bundan (The Story of Tarô, Heir to the Soma Clan: 染馬太郎莩文談) and Kataoka Gadô II as Kitsune Tadanobu in Yoshitsune senbon zakura (Yoshitsune and the thousand cherry trees: 義経千本桜).
In this most colorful of portrayals, the fisherman Watônai wears his distinctive nautical-rope headband and an elegant coat decorated with dragons. In his left hand he grips a sword, indicating this is most likely a view from the scene at Kanki's castle. In the cartouche at the upper left, an actor is shown holding a tiger mask before his face, alluding to Act II, scene 2, in Chikamatsu's puppet play when, in the "Bamboo forest of a thousand leagues," Watônai subdues a ferocious tiger with his bare hands as a test of his god-like strength and bravery. At one point , Watônai leaps on the tiger's back, riding the beast into submission.
No kabuki production/theater date has been found for this particular actor-role-performance, so it has been judged to be a mitate (見立) or imaginary performance.
References: HSH, no. 99