Sukeroku yukari no Edo sakura (Sukeroku: Flower (lit., kinsman) of Edo: 助六由縁江戸桜) has been a huge hit with audiences since its premiere in 1713, when Ichikawa Danjûrô II introduced the play, thereby initiating nearly two centuries of intimate association between the play and the Ichikawa acting lineage. This sewamono ("everyday piece" or domestic play: 世話物), which was originally part of a larger play (Hana yakata aigo no sakura), is a mitate (analogue: 見立) of the legendary revenge tale Soga monogatari (Tales of the Soga: 曾我物語), with Sukeroku standing in for Soga no Gorô and his brother Shinbei, disguised as a shirozake-uri (white-sake seller: 白酒うり), representing Soga no Jûrô. By the mid-eighteenth century, Sukeroku had been reduced to a lengthy one-act play. In 1832, Ichikawa Danjûrô VII (1791-1851: 市川団十郎) included Sukeroku among the Ichikawa jûhachiban ("Eighteen Plays of the Ichikawa": 市川十八番), the family's greatest-hits compilation.
The action takes place at the Miura-ya, a brothel along Naka-no-chô, the main street in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. The courtesan Agemaki, who loves Sukeroku, is being pursued by Ikyû, an elderly samurai whom she detests. At one point, after he insults Sukeroku, Agemaki browbeats Ikyû. She is so infuriated that she cannot be restrained by Shiratama, another courtesan at the Miura-ya. Meanwhile, Sukeroku has been distracted from his vendetta against his father's murderer (à la Soga) because he is searching for his stolen heirloom sword (named "Tomokirimaru"), which Sukeroku must recover to restore the Taira clan to power over the Genji. His brother joins in the quest, and Sukeroku instructs him in ways to pick fights with samurai so that they will unsheath their weapons for Sukeroku to see (some of this unfolds in a comical manner). Later, Sukeroku provokes Ikyû into drawing his sword, which is indeed revealed to be Tomokirimaru, whereupon Sukeroku vows to kill him. That evening, Sukeroku confronts Ikyû again, demanding that he return the sword. When Ikyû refuses, Sukeroku murders him, although he suffers a wound during the duel. As police rush to the scene, Sukeroku hides in a barrel of water; after they pass by, he climbs out and collapses. Agemaki comes to his aid, hiding him under her long robes as she misdirects the returning pursuers. Finally, Sukeroku makes his escape over brothel rooftops, knowing that he will rendezvous with Agemaki along the riverbank.
The tableau of performers in Kunikazu's design captures the spectacle of color for which this play is famous. Brilliant costumes and a stage bedecked with overhanging cherry blossoms were among its eye-catching features. However, in keeping with Sukeroku's role as an otokodate (chivalrous commoner, lit., "standing man": 男伊達 or 男作), his robes are merely black and red. Sukeroku was the quintessential kabuki hero of the commoner class, the first fully realized otokodate stage character that combined elements of a warrior's strength and bravado with erotic, more romantic qualities that previously were thought to be antithetical to aragoto heroes — a tempering of aragoto ("rough stuff": 荒事) with wagoto elements ("soft matter": 和事). He wears his signature — and eponymous — Sukeroku hachimaki, a purple headband.
The left-most sheet is slightly larger than the others, retaining its top and left margins.
References: IKBYS-IV, no. 568; NKE, p. 620