Sumidagawa gonichi no omokage (A duplicate countenance at the Sumida River: 隅田川続俤), written by Nagawa Shimesuke (1754-1814), premiered as a four-act kabuki production at the Kado no Shibai, Osaka in 5/1784. The central attraction is a defrocked mendicant priest named Hokaibô who gets up to all manner of nefarious behavior, including thievery, lechery, and murder.
The play was one of various puppet and kabuki productions called Sumidagawa mono (Sumida River plays: 隅田川物), but unlike the present version, many dramatized the kidnapping of the child Umewaka. Sumidagawa mono were established early in puppet and kabuki drama, having been derived and been adapted from Nô theater Sumidagawa stories as well as from popular fiction. Kabuki, in particular, transformed the character of Hôkaibô into a more important though wicked figure. For a translation of a version of the story before the modification of Hokaibô from good to evil, see Chikamatsu Monzaemon's puppet play Futago Sumidagawa (Twins at the Sumida River: 双子隅田川) in the Gerstle reference below.
Hôkaibô's role is significantly changed in the present staging from earlier dramatizations of the story, which is more typical of kabuki adaptations than of versions for the puppets. Hôkaibô desires an heirloom scroll painting of a carp belonging to the family of a young samurai named Yoshida Matsukawa who is disguised as a clerk named Yosuke while working in the Eirakuya pawnshop. Several protagonists in the play intend to acquire the scroll, but Hokaibô manages to steal the painting, replacing it with a tattered subcription banner. Hôkaibô also tries to kidnap Yosuke's lover Okumi (daughter of the Eirakuya owner) from yet another villain also trying to steal her away. Meanwhile, there are a series of complicated developments involving the scroll changing hands, cheap coins substituted for higher value money, a switched love letter said to be from Yosuke to Okumi, but actually written by Hokaibô, and so on.
In a subsequent scene, Hôkaibô fails to seduce and then stabs Yosuke's betrothed Princess Nowake, cruelly and falsely claiming that Yosuke had hired him to kill her so he could be free to be with Okumi. As she dies, Nowake-hime is tormented by jealousy. Hokaibô again fails to seduce Okumi, and is finally killed by Jinza, a curio dealer and Yosuke's friend, who also comes to the aid of the young lovers after Yosuke is unjustly accused of not repaying a debt, helping them to run away disguised as herb sellers. Hôkaibô's ghost appears in the guise of Okumi alongside the real heroine at the Sumidagawa ferry run by Jinza's sister, Oshizu. Fortunately, the ghost's deception is unmasked when it fails to perform a dance miming private events from Okumi's life that only the true Okumi could have known, and the ghost is subdued.
Udon (饂飩 or simply うどん) noodles figure in the tale when Hokaibô orders them from an itinerant vendor, shown in Hokushû's print. Hôkaibô is then startled by noises and drops some gold coins, which he attempts to hide in vain from the vendor by sitting on them. It is one of many humorous vignettes in the play that serve as a counterpoint to the intrigues of the greedy and lustful Hokaibô.
Our impression of Hokushû's print includes Utaemon's name and his role as Hôkaibô at the upper left, unprinted (in reserve), which is difficult to photograph due to low contrast with the background (the inscriptions are more easily seen in person). An earlier impression in Ikeda Bunko Library (IKBYS below) substitutes a poem signed by the actor Utaemon with his literary name Baigyoku (梅玉) and his red eye-shaped writing seal (kakihan: 花押). The verse reads: 堂島のゆかたに衣 北一まい二八のうとん すくひくたまく (Dôjima no yukata ni koromo kita ichimai ni-hachi no udon suku hiku tamaku: In Dojima, I put on a yukata and scoop up "ni-hachi" udon). "Ni-hachi" was the 20-80 proportion of buckwheat (soba) flour to white flour (udon) in the Edo Period, when soba started to become popular.
We have noticed that this particular design seems to disappear rather quickly whenever it becomes available, as it is wanted by (seemingly) every udon restaurant owner in Japan!
References: IKBYS-I, no. 82 (with poem and "Baigyoku" artist seal); NKE, pp. 103 and 623; C.A. Gerstle (ed. and trans.), Chikamatsu: 5 Late Plays. New York, 2001, pp. 36-117.