The plot of Kikuzuki irifune monogatari (菊月入船噺) is unknown to us, but it is one of the so-called Kasane mono (plays about Kasane: 累物). The tale is based on actual events as well as legends from the 17th century involving an extremely jealous and "ugly" woman named Kasane whose husband Yoemon murders her at the Kinu River in Hanyû Village. In one version of the legend, her vengeful ghost haunts various family members until she achieves salvation through prayers offered by Saint Yûten. In another adaptation, Kasane's spirit returns to possess another character. The story of Kasane became a significant theme within the Edo-period genre of the ghost-story (kaidan-mono: 怪談物), with many playwrights, both in kabuki and the puppet theater, adapting the tale. Interestingly, virtually all retellings included the murder scene at the Kinu River. For a design by Kunihiro portraying these characters, see KUH42.
*** Note the difference in the nigao (facial "likeness": 似顔) in the present print with that of KUH42. In the latter example, the renowned Edo-based actor Onoe Kikugorô III (尾上菊五郎) is drawn in the "soft matter" (wagoto: 和事) manner typical of Kamigata (Osaka-Kyoto region) — his head has an oval shape, the bridge of his nose is nearly straight, and the expression, although grim, is not overtly energetic. However, in the example illustrated above, Kikugorô is drawn in the more flamboyant (aragoto or "rough stuff": 荒事) Utagawa-school manner, based in large part on how Utagawa Toyokuni I or Utagawa Kunisada I depicted this actor, with a more rectangular contour to the face, slightly aquiline nose, and a more distinctly fierce mien. This makes for quite an interesting pairing of the same actor portrayed in two different styles by the same artist for the same kabuki staging. It also demonstrates how versatile the better artists were in the ability to render faces, and perhaps how market forces often played a role. Could it be that in the present example we see a Kamigata-based artist drawing an Edo's actor's face with the Edo market in mind? Or could it be an acknowledgment of Kikugorô's Edo origins and Kunihiro's nod to his teacher, the Edo master Utagawa Toyokuni I?
The role of Fuwa Banzaemon (不破伴左衛門), who was frequently featured in kabuki plays, was based on an actual sixteenth-century samurai. He was purportedly a rival in love with another real-life samurai named Nagoya Sansaburô (名古屋山三郎). There were various Fuwa Nagoya mono (plays about Fuwa and Nagoya: 不和破名古屋) for the puppet and kabuki theaters, some revolving around a conspiracy by Fuwa to usurp control of the Sasaki clan domain by supporting an illegitimate son of the clan's recently deceased lord. In one retelling — Ukiyozuka hiyoku no inazuma (A floating world design: Comparison of matching lightning bolts: 浮世柄比翼稲妻), written in 1823 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV for Ichikawa Danjûrô VII in Edo — Nagoya Sanzaemon was a loyal Sakai retainer who is murdered by Fuwa.
This particular kabuki production caught the attention of the preeminent Edo actor-print artist Utagawa Kunisada I, who happened to be touring in Kamigata with the Edo superstars Matsumoto Kôshirô V, Bandô Mitsugorô III, and Iwai Hanshirô V (the Iwai Hanshirô line of actors made a specialty of the Kasane role). Kunisada designed a print for this 7/1820 staging depicting Nakamura Utaemon III (中村歌右衛門) as Komagata Kuranoshin (駒形蔵之進). The sheet is inscribed, "Now at the Kado Theater in Dôtonbori, Osaka (当時大坂道頓堀角の芝居ニ而相勤申候).
Other roles in the play included Onoe Kikugorô III as Kanô Shirôjirô, Arashi Denpachi I as Ibaraki Monbei, and Arashi Koroku IV as the courtesan (keisei) Tôyama (depicted in a diptych by Shunkôsai Hokushû).
The colors in this impression are especially well preserved, unusual for a print of this period.
References: IBKYS-II, no. 10; SDK, no. 322; Musuem of Fine Arts, Boston (49.1287 for the Kunisada print; 11.35443-44 for the diptych by Hokushû); NKE, pp. 286-87.