This play is an adaptation of the tales about the Genpei wars (1156-1185), the pivotal struggle between the Minamoto
(Genji) and Taira (Heike) clans. Kumagai, one of kabuki's most celebrated roles, was a general serving under the legendary
Minamoto no Yoshitsune who must face in battle a youth of only 15 named Atsumori, son of a Taira general. As it happenes,
Kumagai owes a debt of gratitude to Atsumori's mother, for she had saved Kumagai and his wife from execution 17 years
earlier. Having no other way to honor his debt, Kumagai substitutes and sacrifices his own son for Atsumori. This shocking
turn of events only delays the inevitable, however, and finally Kumagai must slay Atsumori. Distraught at the loss of his
son and his failure to save Atsumori, Kumagai renounces his allegiance to the Minamoto and takes the vows of a Buddhist monk.
The series title, Chûkô kijinden (Stories of remarkable loyalty and filial piety), is indicative of the
guarded approach toward Osaka printmaking following the Tenpô Reforms (Tenpô kaikaku) — edicts that
in 7/1842 banned actor prints in Osaka, virtually halting print production in Kamigata for five years. A gradual weakening of
enforcement ensued despite reiterations in 1844 and 1845 by the government of its intention to continue the reforms, and by 1847
relatively normal print production had resumed, though printmakers played their cards close to their vests for nearly a decade
afterwards. The use of didactic or moralizing titles was intended to endow a print with a loftier purpose. Another bit of
"camouflage" was the omission of actor names, although the accurate physiognomies were easily identifiable by patrons
of yakusha-e, who would have been intimately familiar with the performers and current stage productions. These transparent
gestures would not have fooled the censors, but avoiding explicit references to actors apparently satisfied the letter of the law.
Kumagai appears to be in disguise, raising his large amigasa (sedge hat) meant to hide his face. One sandal has fallen to
the floor. He holds a folding fan (ôgi) in his right hand. The large ôgi cartouche reads
Mikagedô (possibly a shop name and sponsor of the print). The floral cartouche in the form of a square poem card (shikishiban) is
inscribed with the role name (Kumagai Jirô Naozane), while his black robe is decorated with the character "Kuma."
Note: Ôban-size prints constituted a very small percentage of Hirosada's designs — making our print one
of the few available examples. Also, this print can be counted among the earliest post-Tenpô Reform (1842-47) ôban designs following
the 5-year ban on theatrical prints.
References: IBKYS-IV, no. 17; SCH, no. 203; IKB-I, no. 3-120; KNP-6, p. 502; NKE, p. 622