Artist: As the signature on this print indicates, Hokusei was a pupil of the leading print designer Shunkôsai Hokushû: Shunkôsai monjin Shungyôsai Hokusei ga (Drawn by Shungyôsai Hokusei, pupil of Shunkôsai [Hokushû]: 春好春曉齋北晴画). Few of Hokusei's works have survived, and he seems to have been active for only one or two years, circa 1826-27.
Kabuki Play: Irohagana Yotsuya kaidan (Alias syllabary for the Yotsuya ghost story: いろは仮名四谷怪談) was an adaptation specifically rewritten in kamigata style for Onoe Kikugorô III (尾上 菊五郎 1784-1849), an Edo-kabuki superstar who performed while on tour in Osaka in 1826. It was based on an 1825 masterpiece by the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV (鶴屋南北 1755-1829), titled Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (Tôkaidô ghost story at Yotsuya: 東海道四谷怪談). The main theme in this most popular of all kabuki ghost plays involves Tamiya Iemon (民谷伊右衛門), Oiwa's husband and a down-on-his-luck rônin reduced to making oil-paper umbrellas. Iemon despairs over his ill fortune, made worse by Oiwa (お岩), who is struggling in her postpartum convalescence and nursing a newborn child. He finds temptation in a neighbor's young daughter named Itô Oume (伊藤お梅), and is persuaded by her grandfather Itô Kihei (伊藤喜兵衛) to give Oiwa a "medicinal potion" — actually a poison — meant to disfigure her so that Iemon will divorce her. Oiwa drinks the potion and her face takes on a monstrous countenance. In Act II, having seen her disfigured face in a mirror, she tries to push past a former brothel owner and now Iemon's servant Takuetsu (宅悦), but accidentally cuts her throat with a sword, dying as she curses Iemon. When Kobotoke Kohei (小佛小平), Iemon's former servant, steals the traditional medicine of the Tamiya family, Iemon catches Kohei and murders him. Then he has his accomplices nail the bodies of Oiwa and Kohei to the opposite sides of a door and throw them into a river, attempting to link Oiwa and Kohei as lovers. At the close of Act 2, on the night of his wedding, Iemon kills Oume and Itô Kihei when he is driven to distraction by devious tricks played by the ghosts of Oiwa and Kohei. Oiwa's ghost continues to haunt Iemon relentlessly. In Act V, the spector tracks him down in a hermitage at Hebiyama (Snake Mountain: 蛇山) where he is taking refuge. He is finally slain by a rônin (a "wave man" or " floating man," i.e., masterless samurai: 浪人) named Satô Yomoshichi (佐藤与茂七) along with the sister of a servant he has murdered. Yomoshichi was once a vassal of Lord Enya Hangan (塩谷判官), a samurai who was forced to commit seppuku in the great katakiuchi-mono (revenge-killing play: 敵討物 or adauchi-mono: 仇打ち物) titled Kanadehon chûshingura (Copybook of the treasury of loyal retainers: 假名手本忠臣蔵), from which Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan was adapted. Yomoshichi, who in Chûshingura is betrothed to Oiwa's sister, the prostitute Osode (おそで), a part-time pleasure woman, joined the rônin vendetta against Kô no Moronao, the nemesis of their deceased master Hangan.
In Act I, Naosuke (直介) is sexually obsessed with Yomoshichi's wife, Osode (与茂七女房おそで). As this scene begins, Naosuke is at the local brothel attempting to seduce Osode when Yomoshichi and the brothel's owner, Takuetsu (宅悦), enter. Unable to pay a fee demanded by Takuetsu, Naosuke is mocked by Yomoshichi and Osode and forcibly removed. Not long after, an intoxicated Naosuke murders Okuda Shôzaburô (奥田庄三郎), his former master, whom he mistakes for Yomoshichi. Iemon and Naosuke then agree to mislead Oiwa and Osode into believing that they will exact revenge on the people responsible for their father's death. In return, Osode agrees to leave Yomoshichi and marry Naosuke. In Act IV, Naosuke has been pressuring Osode into consummating their marriage, which she has resisted. Yomoshichi appears and accuses Osode of adultery. She realizes that only her death could atone for her apparent disloyalty and so convinces Naosuke and Yomoshichi to kill her. She leaves a farewell note from which Naosuke learns that Osode was his younger sister. Shamed by his actions, as well as for the killing of his former master, Naosuke commits suicide.
The byôbu (floor-screen: 屏風) is pasted with inscriptions about the production of the play, a highly unusual and imaginative example of turning a byôbu into a sort of advertising placard or kabuki signboard. On the far right there is a red sheet identifying the theater (Kado no Shibai: 角之芝居), type of play (futatsugawari kyôgen: ニノ替リ切狂言) referrring to changes in the program, and title (Irohagana Yotsuya kaidan: いろは仮名四谷怪談). The inscription, signed Kaishi (花石), on the yellow panel reads Haru no hatsu gei no haritsuke nanzo yure omite sae yoi to ya mafusu (春の初芸のはりつけなんそゆふれい を見てさへよいとやまふす), referring to the crucifixion of Oiwa and Kohei on a door when she is thrown into a river. Otherwise, the actors and roles are identified on the various screen panels.
This is the first print design by Hokusei that we have offered on this website, making this is a rare opportunity to acquire a work by this artist.
References: IKBYS-II, no. 222; WAS-IV, no. 282; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Inv #RES.50.44 left sheet); IKB-I, no. 1-444; KNP-6, p. 136; NKE, p. 651