Hagi wa Sendai Matsumoto appears to be a reworking of the well-known Meiboku sendai hagi, a play dramatizing the intriques over the
succession within the Date clan of Sendai during the third quarter of the seventeenth century. Meiboku is a classic play, so popular that
during the Edo period it had at least one performance nearly every year after its premiere in 1777, and it spawned a number of adaptations, as in
the Hagi wa production at the Naka in 1821. In the play, Nikki Danjô conspires to overthrow Ashikaga (a
theatrical substitute for the Date clan name) Yorikane, but he is foiled in the end and slain.
The ghostly rodent is actually Nikki in metamorphosis — he possesses magical powers, including the ability to
turn himself into a giant rat. Nikki holds his hands in the manner associated with nercromancy as the rat emerges from his human form (note the lighter
shading of the tail and hindquarters, indicating that the transformation is still in progress). Nikki is a prime example of an important role type known
as jitsuaku ("real villains": 実悪) — unrepentant evil samurai who plot to overthrow their lords. They are also referred to as kuni
kuzushi ("demolisher of nations": 國崩し) to signify their intention to usurp an emperor's throne or a daimyô's domain.
The rat holds a scroll containing a list of conspirators planning to wrest power from Yorikane. Later, pretending to have reformed, Nikki will substitute
another list and offer it as trumped-up evidence of the conspiracy, only to remove a dagger hidden within the scroll and mortally wound a counsel and ally
of Yorikane's son.
Note: It was common in ukiyo-e printmaking for some of the key and color blocks to extend into margin areas. These were typically trimmed off, especially when mounted in albums. This impression retains an unusually wide left margin on the right sheet, allowing us to see the entire figure of the rat (most impressions have this margin trimmed off).
References: IKBYS-I, no. 100; IKB-I, 2-372; KNP-6, p. 79