The historical Minamoto no Yorimasa (源の頼政 1104-1180) served eight different sovereigns in his long career, holding posts such as hyôgo no kami (head of the arsenal). He was also a prominent poet whose works appeared in various anthologies. In 1179 he entered the Buddhist priesthood and took the name Gen Sanmi Nyûdô. Although he had allied himself with the Taira (Heike 平家) clan against the Minamoto (Genji 源氏) during the Hôgen no ran (Hôgen civil war; 1156-59) and the Heiji no ran (Heiji civil war; 1160), he switched allegiance and led the Minamoto forces against the Taira in 1180. Suffering defeat at Uji, he committed suicide in the Byôdô Temple.
Yorimasa nue monogatari (Tale of Yorimasa and the nue: 頼政鵺物語) features the legend of Yorimasa, who is forever associated with slaying the mythical nue (鵺) in 1153 — as recorded in the Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike; first quarter 13th century). Yorimasa, a formidable archer, lookied up at the emperor's palace roof, catching sight of a strange winged-creature with an ape's head, tiger's claws, badger's (tanuki) back, and snake-head tail. As the emperor was suffering from a life-threatening illness, Yorimasa suspected that the nue was the cause. A single arrow took down the beast, whereupon Yorimasa's retainer (Ino Hayata Tadazumi) delivered the coup de grâce with his sword.
This print was published for a memorial performance one year after the death of Arashi Kitsusaburô I (一台目 橘三郎), featuring the actor Arashi Tokusaburô I (嵐徳三郎), later called Rikan II (二代目 嵐璃寛 in 6/1828). The occasion also served as a shûmei (name succession, 襲名) for Tokusaburô I to become Arashi Kitsusaburô II (二台目 橘三郎).
There are two states of this design. One has the actors' names; the other, less common version, including our impression, omits those names but has three poems, one each by the actors and one signed Oguro-an (小黒庵), as follows:
(1R) Along with the autumn grasses, the fragrant purple iris also begins to wilt (Nanakusa ni aki no shôbu mo hitta karu, 七くさに秋の菖蒲も引たかる), signed "Kitô" (其答), the poetry name (haigô) for Sawamura Kunitarô II.
(2R) Autumn night, keeping watch with the pine crickets (Matsumushi ni shukuchoku surunari yo wa no aki, 松虫に宿直するなりよはの秋), signed "Rikaku" (璃鶴), the poetry name (haigô) for Kitsusaburô II.
(3R) Two flowers, side by side — a white shadow, or perhaps a true chrysanthemum? (Shirokage ka magiku futatsu narahekeri, [missing kanji] 白影か真菊ふたつ並へけり), signed Oguro-an (小黒庵). The poem is preceded by 追加 ("In addition").
References: IKBYS-I, no. 134 (with actors' names) and inv. no. Z0453-532 (with poems); OSP, no. 58; MFA Boston (acc. no. 11.26604)