Revenge plays were called by several names: adauchi mono (仇打ち物), adauchi kyôgen (仇打ち狂言), and katakiuchi mono (敵討物). A subgenre of kabuki and puppet plays, they epitomized the portrayal of evil on the treatrical stage, reflecting an growing fascination of Kasei-period (1804-1830) popular culture with unfettered cruelty and cynicism. Tales of samurai vendettas had been in vogue since the Genroku period (1688-1704) in books and plays, as readers and audiences followed aggrieved heroes or their families seeking revenge against villains who had slain the innocent. In some of these dramas, a prototypical role appeared, the akuba (evil woman: 悪婆), since 1879 also called dokufu (poison woman: 毒婦).
One of the playwrights achieving wide acclaim for adauchi mono was Tsuruya Nanboku IV (鶴屋南北, 1755-1829), whose plays were notorious (and hot-ticket venues) for their lurid koroshiba (murder scenes: 殺し場). In one of his works (Iroeiri otogizôshi), premiering in 1808, Nanboku presented Kohata Koheiji no rei (ghost of Kohata Koheiji: 小播小平次の霊), an itinerant actor whose wife Otawa is generally considered the first completely realized akuba role in kabuki (she even refers to herself as an akuba). Nanboku's tale was derived from two yomihon (lit., "books for reading," sparsely illustrated fictional novels: 讀本 or 読本) by the celebrated writer Santô Kyôden (山東京伝, 1761-1816; also known as the ukiyo-e artist Kitao Masanobu, 北尾政寅). The first of these books, published in 1803, was titled Fukushû kidan Asaka no numa (A mysterious tale of revenge at Asaka Marsh). Kyôden introduced Kohata Koheiji, who exacts revenge on his unfaithful wife after she and her lover torture and drown him. The play was so popular that fans demanded a sequel, which Kyôden provided in 1807 with Asakanuma gonichi katakiuchi (The following day’s revenge at Asaka Marsh), wherein Koheiji's ghost takes his retribution against his wife's lover.
Perhaps the best known of ukiyo-e prints portraying Kohata Koheiji is Katsushika Hokusai's (葛飾北斎, 1760-1849) depiction of the actor's skeletal spectre peering over a mosquito net and looking down upon his widow and her lover (Koheiji's murderer) in their bed (they are not shown in the design). Hokusai's composition is one of the artist's Hyaku monogatari (百物語, circa 1831), a set of five chûban sheets celebrated for their imaginative visualizations and menacing effects.
In this dramatic print, Hirosada has drawn one of his more expressive portraits. Rikaku's determined mie (pose: 見得), blue face makeup, and disheveled hair mark him in the role of a vengeful ghost. Spirit flames envelope the right side of the composition. The shading of his gray robes has a painterly quality unusual in ukiyo-e printmaking. Also uncommon is the foreshortened perspective of the child's head and face.
We have been unable to locate another impression of this rare design.