Hanayagura hitome senbon (A thousand fragrances in the flower tower: 花櫓詠吉野) was a variant of the more celebrated Yoshitsune senbon zakura (Yoshitsune & the thousand cherry trees: 義経千本桜) written by Takeda Izumo II, Miyoshi Shoraku, and Namiki Senryû. It was first performed at the Takemoto-za, Osaka in 1747.
The play involves various episodes from an historical tale involving the Heike-Genji (Taira-Minamoto) clan warfare. The real Tadanobu is an ally of Lady Shizuka Gozen, the concubine of the celebrated warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189) in flight from his half brother Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), Japan's military leader.
Yoshitsune is forced to prepare to leave Shizuka, whereupon he gives her a hand drum as a keepsake. When she is attacked by a retainer of Yoritomo’s, the fox-Tadanobu saves her. Yoshitsune observes this from a distance and gives the fox-impostor a suit of armor, thinking that he is entrusting Shizuka Gozen’s safety to the real Tadanobu. But when she plays the drum, Tadanobu undergoes a metamorphosis and begins to dance, his movements animal-like, for the drum is made from the skin of his parent. Finally, all is revealed, and Yoshitsune gives Tadanobu the hand drum in appreciation of his loyalty. In one last act of dedication, the fox drives off six armed priests sent to assassinate Yoshitsune before returning to his animal world.
Shikan dances as the fox Tadanobu in the Fushimi-Inari Shrine scene of Act 2. He performs what is called a kitsune roppô ("fox in six directions": 狐六方) along the hanamichi (the "flower path" 花道 or walkway extending from the kabuki stage). Roppô was the term used for a dynamic, swaggering, and explosive dance performed in aragoto ("wild business": 荒事) kabuki plays. The six directions were north, east, south, west, heaven, and earth, and the term implied that the dance movement was so expansive that it must contain all directions.
In this fox-version of the roppô, the actor's movements are typically agitated as he jumps about or crouches to mime the movements of a wild animal, and the actor's voice is high pitched and unevenly modulated. (The actor will typically put his hands in the "fox paws" position, a gesture often seen in ukiyo-e prints.)
Kabuki audiences have always found this scene exciting and other-worldly, which Hokuei has captured brilliantly in his design. Kitsunebi (fox fires: 狐火), a type of shinka (spirit flame: 神火), hover above Tadanobu's head and flicker against a black night sky. His limbs extend in anatomically challenging combinations and his robes swing about, the tassels at the bottom adding an effective touch of movement and energy.
The partly trimmed seal at the lower right identifies the block cutter Kumazô (hori Kuma) and the printer Toyosaburô (suri Toyo). There is no publisher seal on this sheet, but other deluxe impressions are known with the hand-stamped seals of Kinkadô Konishi.
This is unquestionably one of Hokuei's most admired and sought-after designs.
References: WAS-IV: no. 534; IKBYS-II, no. 352; IKB-I, no. 2-440; KNP-VI, p. 299; KAM, p. 249; NKE, p. 708