The best known plays about Gonpachi are grouped together as Gonpachi Komurasaki mono (works about Gonpachi and Komurasaki: 権八小紫物). Their genesis lies in actual events involving unrelated historical figures. The samurai Shirai Gonpachi (白井権八) from Tottori province, guilty of murder and robbery, was executed in 1679. The second figure was the legendary otokodate (lit., standing man, i.e., chivalrous commoner: 男伊達 or 男作) Banzuin Chôbei (幡随長兵衛), ca. 1622-1657, said to have been killed by Mizuno Jûrozaemon, a leader of hatamoto-yakko (bannermen footsoldiers: 旗本奴).
One theatrical adaptation featuring Gonpachi bestows notoriety upon him at age 16 when he was already famous for his good looks, bravery, and swordsmanship. He kills a fellow samurai and flees to Edo, where at an inn he is warned by a 15-year-old beauty named Komurasaki (小紫) that the owner is a gang leader plotting to murder him for his sword. Gonpachi swiftly kills all ten of the gang. Afterwards he visits the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter and finds Komurasaki at the Miuraya brothel, now a prostitute selling herself to earn money for her destitute parents. Without the funds to ransom her, Gonpachi turns to a life of debauchery, supporting himself by robbery and murder. When he is finally captured and executed, the devoted Komurasaki takes her life at his grave. To honor their memory, sympathetic citizens build a tumulus called hiyokuzuka (lovers' tomb) and temple priests carve a picture of the Hiyoku no tori (比翼鳥), a mythical love-bird — both male and female, each with one eye and one wing — that when flying join as one sex, symbolizing connubial love and fidelity.
There is a different ending in the play depicted here, Ume tabiji gojusan eki (Fifty-three stages of the plum tree journey: 梅旅路五十三驛), wherein Gonapchi takes his own life rather than face capture and a public execution.
The Edo-based actor Onoe Kikugorô III (1784-1849) was, along with Nakamura Utaemon III, one of the earliest recorded kaneru yakusha ("all-around actor": 兼ねる役者), actors who could perform, with notable skill, virtually any type of role. In 1825 the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV wrote for Kikugorô the celebrated role of Ôiwa in Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (Tôkaidô ghost story at Yotsuya: 東海道四谷怪談), the most popular of all kabuki ghost plays. Often championed by his fans as a rival of the Edo superstar Ichikawa Danjûrô VII, Kikugorô, after countless triumphs on the Edo and Osaka stages, retired in 1847, whereupon he opened a shop selling rice cakes (mochi: 餅). He returned to the theater as Ôgawa Hachizô I to perform the role of Gonpachi in 4/1848, as shown in the present print by Hirosada. Four months later, after a tour in Nagoya, he settled in Osaka, but the following year fell ill while traveling the Tôkaidô Road and died at Kakegawa station.
Hirosada's print features the suicide scene from Ume tabiji gojusan eki (Fifty-three stations of the plum tree journey: 梅旅路五十三驛). His composition makes effective use of some of the standard tropes in Kamigata print design. Note, for example, the jet-black sky serving as a backdrop for a dramatic scene, and against which a poem is inscribed in silver-color metallics. The stylized waves lapping up to the boat provide a visual counterpoint to the figure of Gonpachi. Hirosada has achieved something unusual here — a moment in which violence shades into an eerie calm. The poem supports this interpretation in an oblque manner through a conventional metaphor expressing the natural evanescence of life: "Mountain cherry / we love its flowers / because they fall."*
This design, a memorable one from Hirosada's oeuvre, is rarely available in the marketplace and only a small number of impressions have been recorded. The British Museum copy (#1906,1220,0.1138) was acquired in 1906; the impression in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (AFGA 1981.1.80) entered that collection in 1981.
References: Keyes: The Male Journey in Japanese Prints, no. 225* KNP-6, p. 513