The first staging of Ishikawa Goemon’s exploits occurred in the 1680s. A century later, Kinmon gosan no kiri (The Golden Gate and Paulownia Crest: 金門五三桐), written by Namiki Gohei I, premiered in 1788 as a five-act drama (it was renamed Sanmon gosan no kiri for
its premiere in Edo in 1800). It recounts the tale of Ishikawa Goemon, a notorious rônin (a "wave man" or "floating man," i.e., masterless samurai: 浪人) during the reign
of the shôgun Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). At age sixteen, while attempting to steal from his master, Goemon murdered three men and went underground. He lived as a bandit for two decades until, in 1594, he was captured during a failed attempt to kill Hideyoshi. Goemon met a grisly end by being boiled in oil.
The theatrical Goemon was transformed into a hero — fearless, elusive, and endowed with magical powers. While on the run, Goemon takes refuge atop the main gate of the
Nanzen Temple in Kyoto. There, he admires the beautiful hanging cherry blossoms (visible on both sheets in the present diptych), when a hawk suddenly flies up to him, holding a torn kimono sleeve in its beak with an inscription — written in blood — revealing
that his murdered father (Ôinosuke, an the alias of Sô Seki) was involved in a plot to overthrow Mashiba Hisayoshi (a pseudonym for the
historical Hideyoshi) in the name of the Chinese emperor. Upon learning this, Goemon vows to take revenge against Hisayoshi.
The gosan ("five, three [of paulownia]") in the play title refers to the five flowers on the three stems above the kiri (paulownia: 桐) leaves — Hideyoshi’s particular version of the kiri crest, for centuries symbolic of imperial and shogunal power.
This is a gassaku (collaborative work: 合作), a single work designed by two or more artists. Kunihiro and Sadamasu have depicted Hisayoshi disguised as a common pilgrim who is searching for Goemon when they meet at the great gate of the Nanzen-ji. The setting is considered one of kabuki’s most colorful spectacles, featuring a magnificent vermillion gate elevated by a mechanical lift to rise high above the stage. It was a popular subject in ukiyo-e, especially suitable for vertical diptychs, which were uncommon in Osaka printmaking.
References: IKBYS-II, no. 72