The play Keisei setsugekka (Courtesan: Sun, moon, and flowers: けいせい雪月花) premiered at the Kado Theater at the New Year in 1830. It was written by the superstar actor Nakamura Utaemon III under his penname Kanazawa Ryûgoku. Later, just one act (called Kari no tayori) was taken from the whole and performed as a light-hearted piece without the drama featured in the larger play. It is this extracted piece that is mostly known today.
Osaka's biggest star, Nakamura Utaemon III, not only authored the play, but performed as Ishikawa Goemon opposite Arashi Rikan II's Mashiba Hisatsugu (the historical Toyotomi Hidetsugu, 1568-95) in one of the many tales about the historical and legendary rônin bandit Goemon who, in real life, at the age of sixteen, murdered three men during a robbery. He was finally captured many years later in 1594, when the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) had him boiled in oil.
The Ishikawa Goemon mono (plays about Ishikawa Goemon: 石川 五右衛門物) endowed the bandit with supernatural powers and devilish abilities to disguise himself, which provided playwrights with opportunities for fantastical action — often aided by clever stagecraft — and surprising plot twists. The plot of the present jidaimono ("period piece" or history play: 時代物) is very complicated, especially as many characters were well known from various sekai ("worlds" or spheres: 世界), that is, they were derived from other kabuki and puppet plays as well as historical accounts and legends. As was the case for the present play, sekai often served as devices for presenting "doubling structures" wherein audiences could enjoy clever juxtapositions of contemporary and historical events and characters.
The cast for this production was highly unusual, because after fires destroyed all three theaters in Edo in 3/1829, a number of renowned Edo actors relocated temporarily in Osaka to perform there while the Edo theaters were rebuilt. The 1/1830 premiere production was a huge hit, featuring Edo's Ichikawa Hakuen II (the name used by Ichikawa Danjûrô VII while acting in Osaka), Nakamura Matsue III, Matsumoto Kôshirô V, and Sawamura Kunitarô II. The same cast traveled to Kyoto to perform Keisei setsugekka in the third month. Besides Hokushû, seemingly all the top-level artists designed prints for this play, including Ashiyuki, Hokuei, Kunihiro, Shigeharu, and Yoshikuni.
Utaemon is shown performing as Goemon in disguise as a farmer, but he ceases to seem an orthodox salt-of-the-earth figure when one notices the hands — they grip in a gesture associated with necromancy. Here Goemon summons up ghostly warriors who are barely visible behind the painted stage curtain or scrim, their forms veiled by smoke-like clouds.
The great block carver Kasuke (嘉助), active 1818-34, was responsible for cutting this remarkable print (his seal appears at the lower left of the image). There is nothing else quite like this highly original design in all of Osaka printmaking. Hokushû, Kasuke, and the printer have reached the summit of kamigata-e production with this technically impeccable print, making it one of the true masterpieces in ukiyo-e and one of the most sought-after designs by collectors and curators.
References: IKBYS-I, no. 177; WAS-IV, no. 412; SDK, p. 136, no. 282; NKE, p. 224; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Acc. #11.35351);