The historical Minamoto no Yorimasa (1104-1180) served eight different sovereigns in his long career, holding posts such as hyôgo no kami (head of the arsenal). He was also a prominent poet whose works appeared in various anthologies. In 1179 he entered the Buddhist priesthood and took the name Gen Sanmi Nyûdô.
Although he had allied himself with the Taria clan against the Minamoto during the Hôgen no ran (Hôgen civil war; 1156-59) and the Heiji no ran (Heiji civil war; 1160), he switched allegiance and led the Minamoto forces against the Taira in 1180. Suffering defeat at Uji, he committed suicide in the Byôdô Temple.
Yorimasa nue monogatari (Tale of Yorimasa and the nue: 頼政鵺物語) features the legend of Yorimasa slaying the mythical Nue in 1153 — as recorded in the Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike; first quarter 13th century). Yorimasa, who was a formidable archer, spied on the emperor's palace roof a strange winged-creature with an ape's head, tiger's claws, badger's (tanuki) back, and snake-head tail. As the emperor was suffering from a life-threatening illness, Yorimasa suspected that the Nue was the cause. A single arrow took down the beast, whereupon Yorimasa's retainer (Ino Hayata Tadazumi) delivered the coup de grâce with his sword.
This performance of Yorimasa by Kitsusaburô II (formerly Tokusaburô I; later Rikan II; 1788-1837) was part of a first-year memorial program for his illustrious predecessor, Arashi Kitsusaburô I (Rikan I; 1769-9/1821). It also featured a shûmei or accession ceremony — here the passing on of an acting name to a successor — through which Tokusaburô I became Kitsusaburô II. As Kitsusaburô I's final performance before his fatal illness was as Yorimasa in 8/1821, the role held the utmost symbolic significance for the Arashi lineage, their fans, and the Kamigata theatrical world.
This design is the right-hand sheet of a diptych, with the left side portraying Sawamura Kunitarô II as Ayama no Mae.
References: IKBYS-II, no. 24; KHO, p. 264, no. 246; KNP-6, p. 90