The plot of Keisei hana ikada (A courtesan's flower and a departing boat: けいせい花發船) is unknown to us. However, the story is based on the historical samurai Yamanaka Shikanosuke (山中鹿の介 1545-1578; also known as Yamanaka Yukimori, 山中幸盛) who served the Amako (尼子) clan of Izumo Province. The Amako were dispossessed of their lands in 1566 by the Môri (毛利) clan during the sixteenth-century civil wars, whereupon Yamanaka became a rônin (masterless samurai: 浪人) while remaining loyal to the Amako and raising a band of around 300 fighters to continue resisting the Môri for more than a decade. Later in the ongoing conflict, the clan leader Amako Katsuhisa (尼子勝久 1553-1578) allied himself with the great warlords Oda Nobunaga (織田信長 1534-82) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉 1537-98), but Nobunaga manipulated Katsuhisa to serve merely as an aid toward advancing his own army deeper into Môri lands. Hideyoshi and Akechi Mitsuhide (明智 光秀 1528-82) wanted to give Katsuhisa reinforcements, but Nobunaga refused. Upon his defeat by the Môri in 1578, Amako Katsuhisa committed seppuku (ritual suicide: 切腹). Soon after, Yamanaka was captured by the Môri and executed that same year.
In prints and paintings, Yamanaka's portrayals as an adult warrior often show him wearing a helmet decorated with a crescent moon as a good-luck ornament. In Japanese folklore, a mikazuki (three-day moon: 三日月) was considered fortuitous. Yamanaka was superstitious enough to incorporate the emblem as part of his military gear.
In Hirosada's design, we see Yamanaka as a boy with his mother Sarashina. Legend has it that as a youth he rode a deer while his mother was protected by a monkey. He was also said to have wrestled an inoshishi (wild boar: 猪) into submission. This last fable is sometimes found illustrated in ukiyo-e prints and popular books.
This is an exceedingly rare design. We have found one other impression of all three sheets, and another of just the center sheet; otherwise, our copy of the complete triptych is the only other example that we have encountered. The preservation of colors is fine and the edition is deluxe with a generous application of metallics. All in all, a great rarity among Hirosada's works, and highly recommended!
For more about the artist, see Hirosada Biography.
References: IKBYS-IV, p. 53, nos. 251-254 for other scenes from the same play and production; WAS-6, p. 44, nos. 198-199 (other scenes from the play); KNP-6, p. 530