Sugata kurabe deiri no minato (Contest of appearances, quarrel at the harbor: 容競出入湊), which premiered in 1748, was written by Nimiki Jôsuke and others for the ningyô jôruri (puppet theater: 人形淨瑠璃). Adapted from various puppet and kabuki productions, the play spotlights Kurofune Chûemon, head of a gang of otokodate (chivalrous commoners: 男伊達 or 男作). Sugata kurabe first introduced the character of Yakko no Koman, a celebrated female otokodate. Inspired by actual events during the first half of the seventeenth century, the drama features clashes between two gangs of otokodate, one led by Chûemon, the other by Gokumon Shôbei. Koman's father wants her to marry, against her wishes, Gorohachi (an ally of Chûemon), but he is in love with the courtesan Takigawa. Shôbei, in turn, is also infatuated with Takigawa. When she escapes from the pleasure quarter to see Gorohachi, who is hiding in Chûemon's house, Shôbei follows her and confronts Chûemon. Shôbei then attacks Chûemon and kills him.
There are a number of features that make this work noteworthy. The horizontal-print (yoko-e 横絵) format is very uncommon in Kamigata single-sheet ôban designs, including those by Hokuei. Aficionados perk up when, after viewing thousands of vertical-format actor prints over the years, a horizontal ôban makes an infrequent appearance! Moreover, elaborate border patterns were rare in kamigata-e, with very few examples known for each of the leading artists working before the 1840s. (Here, Hokuei incorporates bamboo sparrows, susume 雀, which also happens to be a reference to the susume crest of the Nakamura acting lineage.) Furthermore, prints based on performances at the Kyoto Shijô Kitagawa Theater were rarely published. Given the singularity of such a design, plus the excellent frontal portrayals of Nakamura Utaemon III and his theatrical rival Arashi Rikan II, Hokuei's print represents one of the finer examples of kamigata-e from the 1830s.
Curiously, virtually every example of the few surviving impressions we have seen of this design has a vertical centerfold — even the specimen in Schwaab's 1989 Osaka Prints (no. 143, see OSP below; a publication admired for the exceptional condition of the illustrated prints) — had such a fold, although it is difficult to see in the rather contrasty reproduction in that book (trust us — we've held that same impression in our hands). Note, as well, that the OSP illustration is shown in mirror image (flipped 180 degrees horizontally)!
Provenance: It appears this impression was a second copy in the Haber collection (again, see OSP below for the other illustrated impression in the Schwaab book).
References: IKBYS-II, no. 257; OSP (no. 143); IKB-II, no. 23-96