This performance of Soma Tarô mibae bundan (The story of Tarô, heir to the Soma clan) was part of a kaomise (face-showing: 顔見世), the introduction of newly engaged actors for the upcoming season. It was an adaptation of the tale of Taira Masakado (Soma no Kojirô, died 940), a general formerly with the regent Fujiwara Takahira, who maneuvered to take control of the eight eastern provinces and declare himself emperor. Takahira's warriors defeated Masakado and then his son Soma Tarô in a failed attempt to avenge his father's death.
Theatrical dramatizations featuring Masakado were infused with an atmosphere of the supernatural. Masakado had the ability to create ghostly clones of himself, and his castle in Soma (near Sendai) was said to be haunted by the shades of his retainers.
Soma Tarô is shown opening a scroll containing magical incantations, which he hopes to use against the Fujiwara. On his right, he spies his father Masakado's spirit fire flickering in the air.
Poem (signed "Jubai Shujin"): Aoyagi no me / wa hitoshio ni / iro zo aru / ume mo tsubaki mo / ikade oyoban (The young buds of the willow / are so colorful / how could the plum / and camellia / ever equal them?). The verse, printed in metallics, includes the word me ("new growth"), but it also means "eyes," and refers to Rikan's expressive eyes — the actor was nicknamed metoku Rikan (Rikan with the powerful eyes). The plum is also an allusion to Rikan's stage rival, Nakamura Utaemon III.
This composition is widely considered to be one of Hokuei's masterpieces. Beyond the superb block cutting (by Kasuke, who hand-stamped his seal in the lower right corner) and sophisticated color printing, the design is celebrated for the expressive use of a startling cobalt blue in the background, contributing to the supernatural atmosphere of the scene.
References: IKBYS-II, no. 302; KNP-6, p. 257; OSP, no. 154