The historical Ishikawa Goemon was a notorious masterless samurai (rônin) during the reign of the shôgun Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At age sixteen he murdered three men while attempting to steal from his master. After his escape, he lived as a bandit for the next two decades until, in 1594, he was finally captured during a failed attempt to kill Hideyoshi. Goemon met a grisly end by being boiled in oil.
The theatrical Goemon was transformed into a hero ― fearless, elusive, and endowed with magical powers. The first staging of Goemon’s exploits occurred in the 1680s. Kinmon gosan no kiri (金門五三桐) premiered in 1788 as a five-act drama (it was renamed to Sanmon gosan no kiri for its premiere in Edo in 1800). It recounts Goemon's efforts to take revenge against Mashiba Hisayoshi (a pseudonym for the historical Hideyoshi), the enemy of both his adoptive and natural fathers. The gosan ("five, three [of paulownia]") in the title refers to the five flowers on the three stems above the paulownia (kiri) leaves, Hideyoshi’s particular version of the kiri crest (visible on each sleeve), for centuries symbolic of imperial and shogunal power.
Hokuei's design depicts one of the most celebrated scenes in all of kabuki, when a magnificent vermillion gate is elevated by a mechanical lift to rise high above the stage. Goemon appears on the balcony of the Nanzen Temple gate, where he has been hiding from Hisayoshi and admiring the beautiful hanging cherry blossoms. His dialogue includes a poem: Date hitori / oshie no wa naki / sakura kana (No one is / silent about the / cherry blossoms).
The bandit's bushy wig was meant to signal that he had been on the run for months, unable to shave his pate. Below the balcony a pilgrim has arrived ― Hisayoshi in disguise, hunting for his enemy Goemon. Soon, the two confront one another with the intense stares of one of kabuki's countless distinctive poses, called mie ("display": 見得).
Note: This is Hokuei's only known vertical ôban diptych, and as such, an unquestioned rarity; impressions of this design are almost never encountered in the marketplace.
References: IBKYS -II, no. 330; KNP-6, p. 280; IKB-I, p. 42; KAM, p. 244