Hikosan gongen chikai no sukedachi (A vow to serve with a sword at Mt. Hiko Shrine: 彦山権現誓助剣) is an example of an adauchi mono (revenge tale: 仇打ち物). The play first was performed as a ningyô jôruri (puppet play: 人形淨瑠璃) in 1786 (Kabuki premiered in 1790 at the Naka no Shibai, Osaka). When Yoshioka Ichimisai, a sword instructor to the Kôri (Môri) clan, is killed by Kyôgoku no Takumi, his widow Okô and daughters Osono and Okiku swear revenge. Okiku is killed by Takumi, but her young son Yasamatsu escapes. Around the same time, Keyamura Rokusuke, once a student of Yoshioka Ichimisai, is surviving as a farmer. Even so, he is a samurai known for his filial piety and incredible strength. His swordsmanship is so renowned that the local daimyô (military lord: 大名) proclaims that anyone who can defeat Rokusuke will be hired as a sword instructor.
Rokusuke finds Yasamatsu without realizing he is the grandson of his late teacher. He hangs the boy's kimono outside his house hoping that his family will see it. Rokusuke is visited first by an elderly woman, and then by a woman disguised as a komusô (traveling priest: 虚無僧) wearing a large sedge hat and carrying a shakuhachi (end-blown wooden flute: 尺八) — for this costume, see YSK18. (Osono is one of the more intriguing and challenging roles in the kabuki repertory, as she is both very accomplished in the martial arts and a charming housewife. The actor playing this role must alter his posture, movement, voice, and demeanor when expressing the opposing natures of a single stage character.) She sees Yasamatsu's kimono and misidentifies Rokusuke as an enemy. He fends off her fierce attack, and then Yasamatsu identifies her as his aunt Osono. She suddenly takes on a feminine demeanor, a transformation in voice and body movement that is a highlight of the play. Then the elderly woman reveals her identify as Yoshioka Ichimisai's widow and mother of Osono.
Meanwhile, Takumi has taken on the disguise of a rônin (masterless samurai, lit., "wave man": 浪人) named Mijin Danjô. After Osono identifies Mijin Danjô as Takumi, Rokusuke joins in the effort to avenge his swordmaster's murder. When Rokusuke is refused a match against Danjô because of his humble state as a farmer, he becomes a retainer of the great warrior general Katô Kiyomasa (加藤清正, 1561-1611) after demonstrating his martial skills and is given the name Kida Magobee (貴田孫兵衛). Now a samurai, he challenges Mijin Danjô to a match and defeats him. The play ends with Kiyomasa's departure for the Korean campaign (1592-1598).
In the scene depicted here, Osono mistakes Rokusuke for an enemy, drawing her wakizashi (short sword: 脇差). Rokusuke extends a small hand drum as he prepares to defend himself and the child Yasamatsu (Osono's nephew), but Osono soon realizes that he is her betrothed (her father had promised her in marriage to Rokusuke, but she had not yet met him). It is at this crucial turn-of-events that Osono changes in personality, taking on a more feminine demeanor and revealing her identity. Rokusuke agrees to wed her and join in the vendetta. For a similar scene by Hokuei's teacher Hokushû, see HKS49.
This is a fine early design by Hokuei with a striking yellow background.
References: IKB-I, 2-419; 1-484; KNP-6, p. 232; KAM, p. 232; NKE, p.165