Arashi Kichisaburô II (1769-1821) and Nakamura Utaemon III (1778-1838) were involved in what was arguably the most celebrated rivalry in the history of kabuki. Fueled by the fierce loyalties of their respective fan clubs (hiiki renchû), and no doubt by theater managements all-too-willing to take advantage of the controversy, the competition thrived in the Naka, Kado, and smaller theaters, lasting from 1805-1821. It ended only when Kichisaburô died in the ninth month of 1821 — just after the two superstars had finally reconciled and planned to perform together after the long hiatus. For an excellent article about this celebrated rivalry, see the Bibliography for the RRT reference below.
Prince Koretaka (844-897) was a historical figure, the eldest son of the Emperor Montoku (827-858), whose accession to the throne was foiled by guardians of his brother, Prince Korehito (the fourth son; later Emperor Seiwa, 850-880). Koretake abandoned his right to rule and took a monk's vows. Kabuki, however, transformed Koretake into a villainous imperial prince [shinnô] engaged in a relentless quest to capture the throne.
Katô Masakiyo was based on the historical Katô Kiyomasa (1562-1611), a samurai who served Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The son of a blacksmith, he became legendary for his ferocity in battle, gaining respect and power from his mid-twenties on, until he commanded part of the Toyotomi forces in the Korean campaigns of 1592 and 1597. In kabuki, his tale takes an ominous turn when circumstances force Kiyomasa to meet with Kitabatake (a theatrical stand-in for Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose portrayal in theater or literature was banned by the shogunate). Kitabatake gives Masakiyo a poisoned cup of saké, which he drinks, knowing it will be fatal. He nevertheless manages to stay alive for months to protect his lord until he finally succumbs to the deadly brew.
Ôkubi-e (large-head pictures) by Hokushû are among the glories of 1820s Osaka printmaking. This double ôkubi-e, in particular, is much admired and one of the earliest examples of such a design in ôban format. Another impression graced the cover of the landmark 2006 exhibition catalog, Kabuki Heroes on the Osaka Stage, 1780-1830 (see reference KHO below).
This design, published circa late 1820 - early 1821, was a mitate (an imaginary performance) of the two superstars in roles from different plays running simultaneously at rival theaters (the Horie and the Kado) during the ninth month of 1820. It is a brilliant dual portrait showing each actor at the top of his game — in formidable mie (poses) that, no doubt, would have inflammed the passions of their respective fans shortly before the unfortunate demise of Kichisaburô.
References: IKBYS-I, no. 87; KHO; nos. 188ab; KSTZ, no. 39; IKB-I, nos. 1-409 and 6-42; KNP-6, p. 70 (both plays); TWOP, pp. 66-67; RRT, pp. 52-64