The play Kokusenya gassen ("Battles of Coxinga [Kokusenya]"), written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1724), has long been considered a bunraku (puppet theater: 文楽) masterpiece. First staged in 1715 and performed for a record 17 months, it remains unsurpassed as the most successful play in the history of bunraku. Kabuki also produced many adaptations, beginning in 1716.
The hero Watônai Sankan (和藤内三官), 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, younger sister of the Chinese emperor murdered by the Tartars, where he fights to fulfill his father's promise to restore the Ming dynasty and place Sendan on the throne.
In the theatrical adaptation, Watônai 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 descendants. 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 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).
The play's most famous scene is called beni nagashi shishigajô ("the red signal inside the castle") in which Kinshôjô stabs herself and, in place of the red powder, lets her blood flow into the conduit. Her death frees Kanki to fight the Tartars. Upon seeing the "red signal," Watônai bursts into the Lion Castle to confront Kanki, but soon the two become allies and Watônai is given the name Kokusenya, Lord of Enpei.
Hokuei’s triptych depicts the confrontation between Watônai and Kanki as the mortally wounded Kinshôjô eavesdrops from her dressing room. Soon she will reveal her wound and assure Kanki that her death must silence those who would otherwise say a woman influenced his decision. The two warriors become allies and Kanki bestows upon Watônai a new name—Kokusenya—and a princely title.
The composition overflows with detail, including exotic costumes. Watônai’s head-cord is done up in the "anchor rope" or ikarizuna style reflecting his fisherman roots. A fierce lion's head at the lower right is mounted on a small bridge spanning the conduit; it is through this head that water flows into the conduit. The crenelated walls of the Lion Castle introduce a dramatic receding perspective. Overall, the impressive carving and printing are of the highest quality.
This design is one of Hokuei's best triptychs and is rarely available for acquisition as it is here, complete and in very good condition.
Provenance: Former Okada Isajiro (岡田伊三次郎) — a celebrated private Japanese collection not seen in public for more than 70 years until its gradual dispersal starting in the year 2000 — a blockbuster event in the world of kamigata-e; see KAM).
IKBYS-II, no. 313; inv H185); WAS-IV, no. 90; inv 016-0587 to 0591); MFA Boston (11.35223-5); Prague (#1143); Hamburg (S2009.117.ab-1); Alberta (University of Alberta Museums Art Collection, Canada, 1985.41.7); IKB-I, no. 487); KNP-6, p.265