Ishikawa Goemon is a featured role in Keisei ishikawazome (A courtesan and dyed Ishikawa colors: けいせい石川染), one of the many Ishikawa Goemon mono (plays about Ishikawa Goemon: 石川 五右衛門物). Although we are unfamiliar with the plot of Keisei ishikawazome, Ishikawa Goemon is well documented in history and legend. In real life, Goemon (1558 – 10/8/1594) was the son of the sixteenth-century warrior Takechi (Akechi) Mitsuhide, who was killed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) just before the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate. Hideyoshi ordered the extermination of the entire clan, but the young Goemon survived, and years later sought to avenge his father's death by killing Hideyoshi. After numerous intrigues and escapes (in the theatrical dramas Goemon possesses magical powers and is a master of disguise), he was eventually captured and executed — in reality, by being boiled in oil, along with his son, in a gruesome public spectacle. Goemon's exploits were very popular subjects in legend, songs, narrative fiction, and plays. The mainstay in the kabuki repertoire on this theme is Kinmon (Sanmon) gosan no kiri (The golden gate and paulownia crest: 金門五三桐), first performed in 4/1778 at the Naka Theater, Osaka, and still popular today.
Elements of this design fall within the guarded approach to Osaka printmaking following the Tenpô Reforms (Tenpô kaikaku: 天保改革), 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. One sign of this caution was the rather transparent use of didactic or moralizing titles to endow a print with a loftier purpose. The cartouche at the upper left reads Chûkô buyûden ("Chronicles of courage, loyalty, and filial piety"), a title Hirosada used on various prints of this period. Another bit of "camouflage" was the omission of actor names (the cartouche at the upper right carries only the role name), although patrons of yakusha-e hardly needed the inscribed names, as the physiognomies were easily identifiable, and they would have also been intimately familiar with current stage productions. No one, including government censors, was fooled into thinking that such images were anything but actor prints. Still, the gesture helped satisfy the letter of the law.
Other impressions are in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Acc #08.541.54) and the Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto (arcUP2967).
References: PRG, no. 796