Yoshitsune senbon zakura (Yoshitsune and the thousand cherry trees: 義経千本桜) was written for the puppet theater by Takeda Izumo II, Miyoshi Shoraku, and Namiki Senryû and first performed at the Takemoto no Shibai, Osaka in 1747. The play involves various episodes from a historical tale highlighting the military conflicts between Heike and Genji (Taira vs. Minamoto) clans. The real Tadanobu is an ally of Lady Shizuka Gozen, the concubine of the celebrated warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189) who is in flight from his half brother Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), Japan's military leader.
In the dramatization, Yoshitsune is forced to leave Shizuka, whereupon he gives her a hand drum as a keepsake. When she is attacked by a retainer of Yoritomo's, the fox-Tadanobu saves her. Yoshitsune observes this from a distance and gives the fox-impostor a suit of armor, thinking that he is entrusting Shizuka Gozen’s safety to the real Tadanobu. But when she plays the drum, Tadanobu undergoes a metamorphosis and begins to dance, his movements animal-like, for the drum is made from the skins of his parents. Finally, all is revealed, and Yoshitsune gives Tadanobu the hand drum in appreciation of his loyalty. In one last act of loyalty, the fox drives off six armed priests sent to assassinate Yoshitsune before returning to the animal world.
Kokingo is a retainer to Taira no Koremori a (Taira general) and Wakaba no Naishi, Koremori's wife. In Act 3, Naishi, her son Rokudai, and Kokingo pause at a tea shop along their journey to find Koremori. They sit down to rest, and a young man named Gonta joins them. After a brief conversation, he leaves, taking Kokingo's traveling pack instead of his own. Kokingo learns of the switch a few moments later, when Gonta returns and apologizes for his mistake. The two examine the contents of the pack to make sure the other hasn't stolen anything, but Gonta, attempting to swindle Kokingo, claims that 20 ryô (unit of gold coinage: 両) are missing from his pack. When Gonta accuses him of being a thief, a fight nearly breaks out. As Gonta is no match for a samurai in a fight, he hides behind a bench while Kokingo grows angrier and draws his sword. Naishi attempts to calm him down, while Gonta eggs him on until, finally, Kokingo pays him the money and leaves, along with Naishi and Rokudai.
Hokushû has depicted the moment when Kokingo cannot restrain himself any longer and begins to draw his katana (the longer sword: 刀), his wakizashi (short sword: 脇差) still in its sheath.
For a print of this period, the colors are very well preserved. Tattoo fanciers will appreciate Utaemon's ink as well, a floral design along the length of his left arm and a sword on his right forearm.
* Two dates have been proposed for this design: 3/1820 (see IKBYS and MFAB refs. below) and 9/1825 (see WAS ref. below). We believe it is the earlier production of this famous play.
References: WAS-4, no. 265; IKBYS-I, no. 80; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFAB Accession No. 11.35356); KNP-6, pp. 67 (3/1820 performance) and 129 (9/1825 performance)