The play Gion nyogo kokonoe nishiki (Imperial concubine Gion and the nine-fold brocade: 祇園女御九重錦) derives from several plays based on a legend about Sanjûsan Gendô and Yokozone Heitarô, the latter being a disciple of the priest Shinran. The earliest kabuki plays on this theme were produced in Osaka, Yanagi zakura kokonoe nishiki (1719) and Sanjûsan Gendô munagi no yurai (1731); both influenced the 1849 drama depicted here. Gion nyogo kokonoe nishiki premiered in 1760 for the puppet theater (ningyô jôruri: 人形淨瑠璃) at the Takemoto no Shibai, Osaka, and was adapted for kabuki in 1761 at the Kameya no Shibai in Kyoto. Edo produced its first version in 1786. The first two characters in the play's title can also be read as "willow garden" (yanagi sono).
Today, only a one-act version is performed, based closely on Act III of the original. It dates from 1825 when Sanjûsan Gendô munagi no yurai was revised. In this version, the Emperor Shirakawa suffers from debilitating headaches, which are ascribed to his skull from a previous life that is encased in an old willow tree. The willow had been targeted for destruction five years earlier, but Yokozone Heitarô saved it. Heitarô, who is in disguise as a Kumano woodsman, is ordered to fell the tree for use as a ridgepole in a temple, where the skull would be enshrined. Heitarô is also on a clandestine quest to retrieve a stolen heirloom sword and avenge his family's enemies. His wife, Oryû, is mother to their son, Midorimaru; however, she is actually the spirit of the willow tree who has taken human form to marry Heitarô and reward him for saving the tree five years before. With the tree about to be cut down, Oryû must abandon her husband and son as she searches for the sword buried under the tree. Later, as the tree is being taken to the temple, Oryû's sorrow at its loss and her separation from her family causes the tree to stop and become immovable. After Midorimaru is summoned, he sings a working song taught to him by his father, and the tree's spirit, recognizing its child's voice, releases its hold, freeing the tree for transportation.
The present impression of Hirosada's diptych is very well preserved, with excellent color and strong woodgrain in the background. Note the willow-leaf pattern on Yanagi no Sei's gradated-gray kimono.
The characters (now trimmed) inscribed in the lower left margins on each print read kami (上) and shita (下), respectively, marking the two sheets as a pair.
References: IKBYS-IV, no. 188; KNP-6, p. 524; NKE, p. 127