Katô Masakiyo (加藤正清) was the theatrical stand-in for the historical Katô Kiyomasa (加藤清正 1562-1611), the son of a blacksmith who was legendary for his ferocity in battle, earning him the nickname Kishôkan (demon general). He commanded the second division in the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi's first Korean invasion of 1592. Kiyomasa led troops in Korea again in 1597, but was recalled the next year following Hideyoshi's death. Although he next allied himself with Tokugawa Ieyasu — one of Hideyoshi's generals and the eventual founder of the hereditary dynasty of Tokugawa shoguns — he ran afoul of Ieyasu after opposing a plan to murder Hideyoshi's son, Hideyori. Kiyomasa's death in 1611 was suspicious, possibly the result of poisoning on orders from Ieyasu. In kabuki, Masakiyo's tale takes an ominous turn when circumstances force him to meet with Kitabatake (a theatrical stand-in for Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose explicit portrayal in theater or literature was banned by the shogunate). Kitabatake gives Masakiyo a poisoned cup of saké, which he drinks, knowing it will be fatal. Masakiyo nevertheless manages to stay alive for months to protect his lord until finally succumbing to the deadly brew.
The plot of Keisei kiyome no funauta (An innocent courtesan and a sailor's song: けいせい清船諷) is unknown to us, but it is undoubtedly an adaptation of historical events and figures in the kabuki and bunraku genre called jidaimono (lit., "period piece" or historical drama: 時代物).
Katô Masakiyo is drawn in a heroic mie (expressive pose: 見得) suggesting bravery, strength, and resolve. The role was important to the Nakamura lineage — the superstar Nakamura Utaemon III (1778-1838) had triumphed as Masakiyo, making it one of the great roles of his career. Thus Utaemon IV (1798–1852) was expected to succeed as Masakiyo.
The two inscriptions read in Japanese:
(1) 海原に船諷さゆる名の夜哉 (poem by Senchô, 僊蝶)
(2) 毒酒の苦痛もいとはすして本国に帰船の大洋の ("Water," 水)
Our impression is an excellent deluxe printing with extensive use of metallic pigments. There is also a later, less desirable printing without metallics.
For more about the artist, see Hirosada Biography.
References: WAS-VI, no. 233 (inv 016-1826); KNP-6, p. 548; Masterful Illusions, p, 347, no. 330 (Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian, 2002)