The play Kokusenya kassen (Battles of Kokusenya: 国性爺合戦), written by the great pre-modern playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) as a jidai kyôgen ningyô jôruri (historical puppet play: 時代狂言人形淨瑠璃), has long been considered a masterpiece of bunraku (puppet theater: 文楽). First staged in 1715 at the Takemoto no Shibai, Osaka, it remains unsurpassed as the most successful play in the history of bunraku. Kabuki also produced many adaptations, starting in 1716 at the Miyako Mandayû no Shibai in Kyoto.
The hero Watônai Sankan, a fisherman by trade, was also the son of Ikkan, a former Ming minister named Tei Shiryû who had been exiled to Japan. Trained in military strategy, Watônai travels to China to aid a princess named Sendan, the younger sister of the Chinese emperor murdered by the Tartars. Watonai vows to fulfill his father's promise to restore the Ming dynasty and place Sendan on the throne. He and Ikkan travel to China, where they find Ikkan's daughter and Watônai's half-sister, Kinshôjô, married to a general named Kanki, of Ming ancestry but allied with the Tartars. Kinshôjô, loyal to her father and Watônai, agrees to ask Kanki to join Watônai, but she has them wait outside the Lion Castle for a sign of her husband's intentions: a powder — white for "yes" and red for "no" — to be tossed into cascading water flowing down to the castle moat. Kanki is sympathetic to her request but cannot take advice from a woman on military matters, as it would bring shame upon himself and his descendents. He is also bound by a promise he has made to the Tartars to kill Watônai. Always the warrior, Kanki considers murdering his wife to quell any rumors of his being a coward, but is dissuaded by Kinshôjô's stepmother (Watônai's Japanese mother, who was allowed to enter the castle to plead their cause).
Depicted here is the prelude to the most celebrated scene of the play, the so-called beni nagashi shishigajô ("the red signal inside the castle"). Kinshôjô is seated behind a screen as she eavesdrops on her husband Kanki while he confronts Watônai. Hearing her husband declare that he would be unable to take her advice, Kinshôjô decides to stab herself in a supreme gesture of self-sacrifice, as her death will free Kanki to fight the Tartars. In the beni nagashi shishigajô scene, she lets her blood flow into the conduit in place of the red powder. Upon seeing the "red signal," Watônai bursts into the Lion Castle to confront Kanki, whereupon the two become allies and Watônai is given the name Kokusenya, Lord of Enpei.
The elaborate Chinese costumes and exaggerated perspective view of the crenellated castle walls in the distance helps to make this composition one of the hallmarks of Hokuei's oeuvre. It is known in only a few impressions (see references below).
References: IBKYS-II, no. 313; WAS-4, no. 490; KNP-6, p. 265; IKB-I, p. 42, no. 1-487