Kichi Hôgen sanryaku no maki (Kiichi Hôgen's three-volume book of tactics: 鬼一法眼三略巻) premiered as a ningyô jôruri (puppet play: 人形淨瑠璃) in 1731; kabuki followed in 1732. It recounts the earlier life of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, 1159-1189: 源義経) from his boyhood to the celebrated confrontation with Musashi-bô Benkei (武蔵坊弁慶) the warrior monk (a yamabushi, literally, mountain sleeper: 山伏). The play, derived in part from the Muromachi-period chronicle Gikeiki or Yoshitsune ki (Chronicles of Yoshitsune: 義経記), presents the young hero in disguise as Torazô, who is traveling with his retainer Kisanta, disguised as Chienai. They are on a mission to steal a book of military tactics compiled by the noted strategist Yoshioka Kiichi Hôgen allied with the enemy Heike (Taira) clan. When Hôgen's daughter Minazuru-hime falls in love with Yoshitsune, her compassionate father, whose political sympathies actually lie with the Genji (Minamoto), gives the book of tactics to Yoshitsune and then takes his own life in expiation for being disloyal to the Heike.
The scene depicted here is a theatrical version of one of the most commonly depicted musha-e (warrior prints: 武者絵) — the chance encounter and ensuing fight on the moonlit Gojôbashi (Gojô Bridge) between Benkei and Minamoto no Ushiwakamaru (源ノ牛若丸 an earlier name for Minamoto no Yoshitsune 源ノ義経). Earlier versions of the story place the protagonists at the Gojô Tennin Shrine and on the balcony of the Kiyomizu Temple, but a Nô play (Hashi-Benkei, Benkei at the Bridge; first half 15th century) and other sources relocate the scene to the Gojô Bridge, with Ushiwakamaru set upon what is called sennin-giri (defeating 1,000 persons). In the version seen in this and other ukiyo-e prints, however, it is Benkei who has embarked upon sennin-giri in order to acquire a suit of armor worthy of his remarkable size and strength (legend has it that he was seven to eight feet tall and strong as 100 samurai). Benkei has agreed to give 1,000 swords to the swordsmith Kokaji Munenobu in exchange for forging the armor, and when he arrives at the Gojôbashi, he is only one shy of his goal. Although the teen-aged Ushiwakamaru appears to be an easy mark, he unsheathes his katana (small sword: 刀) and parries Benkei's every thrust. Dumbfounded at Ushiwakamaru's prowess, Benkei drops his naginata ("long sword," a halberd or long spear: 長刀 or 薙刀), concedes defeat, and pledges his allegiance to the "marvelous youth."
Benkei holds a large-bladed naginata ("long sword"or halberd: 長刀 or 薙刀) as he prepares to attack Ushiwakamaru. The youth reveals himself by lifting his white cloak or veil from his face and shoulders, a last gesture before fighting. The naginata is one of Benkei's "seven gruesome weapons," the others being a huge two-pronged arrow (karimata), three-pronged grappling hook on a shaft, large-blade saw, oversized mallet, a smaller type of sickle or scythe (kama), and an axe.
References: HSH, no. 22, pp. 19 and 118; SDK, no. 537, p 248