Katakiuchi-mono (revenge-killing plays: 敵討物; also called adauchi-mono: 仇打ち物) were a subgenre of kabuki and puppet theater plays featuring samurai vendettas. In pre-modern Japan, katakiuchi were, within limitations, an accepted way to punish the perpetrators of murder against certain blood relations among the samurai class. Such actions probably had a basis in Confucian morality, which taught that one should not live under the same heaven as his father's enemy. The frequency of katakuchi is unknown, although Tokugawa historical documents exist of applications to local bakufu from relatives of slain lords asking permission to track down and take revenge upon the murderers. Failure to give notice and obtain official sanction was a criminal act. The legalities of katakiuchi were inconsistent among the various domains, and there were also difficulties with murders based on grievances but carried out under the pretense of a moral revenge. The quintessential model of theatrical katakiuchi was the Soga monogatari (Tale of the Soga: 曾我物語), recounting the revenge taken by the brothers Soga no Jûrô and Soga no Gorô against Kudô Suketsune who was guilty of their father's murder in 1193.
Katakiuchi takane no taiko (Revenge and the loud noise of the drum: 復讐高音鼓) was apparently performed only in Kamigata, starting in 1808, but neither the plot and nor the origin of the tale are known. Early kabuki libretti were sometimes treated as ephemera, without formal publication or organized preservation of scripts. Being an actor-centered art form, kabuki allowed its performers (especially the superstars) to take liberties with the dialogue or plots; sometimes scenes or entire plays were adapted to highlight the particular strengths of a star actor. As a result, we occasionally encounter woodblock prints depicting plays for which we have little or no additional information beyond what the prints tell us.
The five actors are each identified by their haimyô (poetry names: 俳名). The scene depicts the actors performing gagaku (lit., elegant music: 雅楽), Japanese classical music for the imperial court that includes both bugaku (court dance: 舞楽) and kangengaku (orchestral music: 管絃楽). In this instance, it appears to be, more specifically, a Chinese-influenced form called Tôgaku (lit., "Tang Dynasty music": 唐樂), comprising the best known and most frequently performed repertoire in gagaku. The music employs the yo pentatonic scale, and Tôgaku orchestras, at their most elaborate, can number as many as 30 musicians playing a wide variety of string, wind, and percussion instruments.
Dance scenes such as this, with actors in elaborate Chinese-style costumes, are rather unusual in kamigata nishiki-e. Adding to the significance of this work is the hand-stamped red seal in the lower right corner (horiko Kasuke, 彫工ｶｽｹ), indicating that one of the great carvers in Kamigata cut the keyblock for this design.
References: IKBYS-II, no. 246; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (acc #11.35330)