We have not located a synopsis for the play Azuma miyage Date no hinagata (A Date-pattern gift in the east: 東部産伊達雛形), but the role of Nikki Danjo played by Kikugorô III points obviously to at least one sub-plot featuring the intrigues over the succession within the Date clan of Sendai (仙台) in eastern Japan during the third quarter of the seventeenth century. (Sendai was founded in 1600 by the daimyô Date Masamune, 伊達政宗 1567-1636.) The classic play on this theme is Meiboku sendai hagi (Bush clover, the famous tree of Sendai: 伽羅先代萩). It was so popular during the Edo period that it had at least one performance nearly every year after its premiere in 1777. It also spawned a number of adaptations, such as Hagi wa Sendai Na wa Matsumoto (Matsumoto and the famous autumn flowers of Sendai: 秋花先代名松本), as well as the present example, Azuma miyage Date no hinagata. In the play, Nikki Danjo conspires to overthrow Ashikaga (a theatrical substitute for the Date clan name) Yorikane, but he is foiled in the end and slain.
Onoe Kikugorô III (1784-1849; 三代目 尾上菊五郎) was supremely talented but eccentric and arrogant, with too strong a tendency to feud with other actors, most notably Ichikawa Danjûrô VII. Kikugorô III was an Edo actor who performed in Kamigata (Osaka-Kyoto region) during seven different sojourns from 1820 to 1849. One of his most celebrated roles was Oiwa in the play Tôkaidô yotsuya kaidan (Ghost story at Yotsuya on the Tôkaidô: 東海道四谷怪談), written for him by the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV, whose kaidan mono (ghost plays: 怪談物) are among the masterpieces of the kabuki repertoire. Although Kikugorô III specialized in vengeful ghosts, he was one of the fine kaneru yakusha (all-around actor: 兼ねる役者) whose versatility extended to katakiyaku (actor of villains: 敵役) and onnagata.
The role of the necromancer Nikki Danjo would, of course, be a natural fit for the superstar Kikugorô III. Nikki possesses magical powers, including the ability to turn himself into a giant rat. The most notable showcasing of this metamorphosis into a ghostly rodent is the one enacted in Meiboku sendai hagi or its variants. In Hirosada's print, a shinka (spirit flame: 神火) can be seen at the lower left, symbolizing the presence of the supernatural. Nikki is a prime example of an important role type known as jitsuaku ("real villain": 実悪) — unrepentant evil samurai who plot to overthrow their lords. They are also referred to as kuni kuzushi ("demolisher of nations": 國崩し) to signify their intention to usurp an emperor's throne or a daimyô's domain.
For more about the artist, see Hirosada Biography.
References: WAS-6, p. 21, no. 92