Suma no miyako Genpei Tsutsuji (Azaleas of the Minamoto and Taira clans in the capital at Suma: 須磨都源平躑躅) premiered as a ningyô jôruri (puppet play: 人形淨瑠璃) at the Takemoto no Shibai, Osaka in 1730. Kabuki staged its first version in 1763. The dramatization was based on the Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike Clan: 平家物語) and Genpei seisuiki (History of the Rise and Fall of the Genji and Heike: 源平盛衰記) — chronicles about the pivotal struggle (1156-1185) between the Minamoto (Genji) and Taira (Heike) clans ending at the battle of Dannoura in western Honshû.
The play serves as a prelude to the most famous individual confrontation in samurai legend — the slaying at Ichinotani of the fifteen-year-old Atsumori, son of a Taira general, by the Minamoto general Kumagai no Naozane, serving Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189). As it happens, Kumagai owes a debt of gratitude to Atsumori's mother, for she had saved Kumagai and his wife from execution 17 years earlier. Having no other way to honor his debt, Kumagai substitutes and sacrifices his own son for Atsumori. This shocking turn of events only delays the inevitable, however, and finally Kumagai must slay Atsumori. Distraught at the loss of his son and his failure to save Atsumori, Kumagai renounces his allegiance to the Minamoto and takes the vows of a Buddhist monk.
The 1832 production of the play included the Gojôbashi no ba ("Gojô Bridge scene"), newly written for the revival. The episode was, in part, an parody of the celebrated encounter on Kyoto’s Gojô Bridge between the young Minamoto general Yoshitsune (Ushiwakamaru) and the warrior priest Benkei. In the Gojôbashi no ba, Atsumori disguises himself as a woman named Kohagi and takes refuge with the fan-seller Kazusa and his daughter Katsurako. As Atsumori is about to be captured by the Minamoto, Kumagai happens to visit the shop and has Kazusa sacrifice Katsurako to honor his debt by protecting Atsumori. He then presents her head in place of Atsumori’s to deflect his fellow Minamoto from their mission. Later, as Atsumori prays for Katsurako’s soul at the Gojô Bridge, Atsumori gives a war-fan (gunsen) to Kumagai and promises to meet him on the battlefield at Ichinotani.
Hokuei’s print was issued for the premiere of the newly staged "Gojô Bridge scene" for the revival of Suma no miyako, as described above. Remarkably, this fine design appears to be Hokuei's earliest okubi-e (lit., "large head" or close-up bust portraits: 大首絵), an astonishing achievement for his first foray into the format. It is arguably one of the finest okubi-e ever issued in Osaka printmaking. Early edition examples are known with publisher seals for both Honsei (Honya Seishichi: 本屋清七) and Kawaji. Kasuke's block cutting is superb, with intricate patterns effectively balanced by open space. There is also a second state of this design, a namizuri (ordinary edition: 並摺絵) for a performance of the same play in 3/1833 at the Kyoto Shijô Kitagawa no Shibai. The actors' names and roles were added, but, curiously, although Onoe Tamizô II replaced Shijaku I, the face remained unchanged — perhaps due to rushing out the print production only a month after the first edition to meet the new demand in Kyoto. There is also a namizuri edition without the actors' names and roles.
Other impressions can be found in the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Newark Museum, Sackler Museum (Smithsonion Institution), and Musées d'Art et d'Histoire, Bruxelles.
Okada Isajirô (a celebrated private Japanese collection not seen in public for more than 70 years until its recent dispersal ― a blockbuster event in the world of kamigata-e; see KAM below)
References: KAM, Kuroda Genji, Kamigata-e ichiran (Review of Kamigata Pictures), 1929, plate 71 & p. 98; KNP-6, p. 251 (Osaka) and p. 265 (Kyoto); IKB-I, no. 1-480; KUM, p. 98 and plate 71; NKE, p. 622