Ume no haru gojûsan tsugi (Plums in spring and the fifty-three stations: 梅初春五十三駅) embeds in its title a reference to the fifty-three post stations along the Tôkaidô road connecting Edo with Kyoto, a popular theme for landscape prints, especially those of the Edo artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). When this triptych was produced, Onoe Kikugorô III (1784-1849; shown in the middle sheet), a celebrated Edo actor, was performing in Osaka between 11/1840 and 1/1842. (For more about Kikugorô III and a memorial print depicting him in another role from the same play, see KMS20).
Ume no haru gojûsan tsugi premiered in 1835 as an adaptation of the 1827 play Hitori tabi gojûsan tsugi (Traveling alone along the 53 stations: 独道中五十三駅) by the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV (1755-1829), creator of the best known kaidan mono (ghost plays: 怪談物). The star of the Hitori tabi premiere, Kikugorô III, had introduced the hugely popular role of Oiwa in Nanboku IV's Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (Tôkaidô ghost story at Yotsuya: 東海道四谷怪談) in 7/1825. Hitori tabi was written by a group of playwrights, including Nanboku's son, Tsuruya Nanboku V. Given the title, audiences might have expected a version of Jippensha Ikku's (十返舎一九, 1765–1831) best-selling comic novel Tôkaidôchû Hizakurige (東海道中膝栗毛, popularly known as Shank's Mare), but what they got instead was a spectacle of frightening scenes, along with erotic interplay and comic spoofing of Nanboku's favorite themes. Ume no haru, like its predecessor, included a monstrous demon cat, but also added a renegade priest who masters rat magic and a thief named Nezumi Kozô ("Kid Rat"). With these elements, the play qualified as a type of drama called neko sôdô mono ("cat-family dispute plays: 猫騒動物). The playwrights also added story lines from other dramas, transforming the famous greengrocer's daughter Oshichi into Sayoginu Oshichi and bringing in the dashing young samurai Shirai Gonpachi (白井権八) and his lover, the courtesan Komurasaki (小紫). With such a roster of fanciful characters and special effects (keren), Ume no haru gojûsan tsugi became a long-running hit and inspired other plays featuring spectacular scenic effects.
This appears to be a sheet from a set or series (one other sheet shows the same actor, role, and play). It is printed with the finest colorants, including furikake (sprinkling with metallics: 振掛), and the wig is exceptionally well printed.
For other designs by Sadamasu from the same play, see KMS20 and KMS23.
References: IKBYS-III, no. 136-137; OK, no. 97, p. 108; HKE, pp. 171, 232, 465, 670