In the twelfth month of 1745, kabuki fans in Osaka flocked to the city's three ô-shibai (big or main theaters: 大芝居) located on adjacent blocks in the entertainment district along the Dôtonbori (Dôton Canal: 道頓堀). The Ônishi, Naka, and Kado theaters had plunged into a spirited competition, each assembling their best casts to perform a new nine-act play called Natsu matsuri Naniwa kagami (Mirror of the summer festival in Osaka: 夏祭浪花鑑). The sewamono ("everyday piece" or domestic drama: 世話物) had premiered in the seventh month as a puppet play (ningyô jôruri, 淨瑠璃 or bunraku, 文楽) at the Takemoto no Shibai, Osaka, and was first staged for kabuki during the eighth month by two rival theatres in Kyoto, the Miyako Mandayû no Shibai and Minamigawa no Shibai. Edo did not stage a production until the fifth month of 1747 at the Morita-za.
The main character was a hot tempered fishmonger and otokodate (lit., "upright man" or chivalrous commoner: 男伊達 or 男作) named Danshichi Kurobei. A popular and well-established role type, the otokodate was a defender of the weak and oppressed. Of all the Danshichi mono (plays about Danshichi: 團七物), Natsu matsuri would prove to be the most popular, with performances spanning more than 250 years, continuing unabated today. By the end of the first quarter of the 19th century, after a change in standardized forms or interpretation (kata: 型), Danshichi also became emblematic of the boldly tattooed otokodate, giving impetus to some of the most visually compelling images in actor prints. *
Otokodate iromo Yoshiwara (Five chivalrous women of the Yoshiwara: 男作女吉原) was an Edo-based adaptation of Natsu matsuri Naniwa kagami.
Kunisada's print depicts the confrontation between Danshichi and his father-in-law, Giheiji, in one of kabuki's most famous episodes, Nagamachi no ura no ba ("Back street scene in Nagamachi"). As their argument escalates over Danshichi's payment to ransom the courtesan Kotoura, sounds of revelry can be heard from an approaching Kozû Shrine Festival parade in Dôtonbori — note the banners and janôme-gasa ("snake's-eye umbrella: 蛇の目傘) in the background. During performances of this play, the boisterous music provides an incongruous carnivalesque accompaniment to the action in the gloomy backstreet. Danshichi draws his sword, accidentally cutting Giheiji, who screams, "Murderer!" Overcome with rage, Danshichi, his unknotted hair falling to his shoulders, strips down to a red loincloth, revealing his tattooed body. As he moves in on his prey, Danshichi performs various koroshi no mie (murderer's poses: 殺し見得) in counterpoint to Giheiji's displays of panic and supplication. Finally, after asking for forgiveness, Danshichi ends the old man's life with a thrust of his sword. Danshichi then washes splattered blood and Giheiji's muddy handprints from his body, using water from a nearby well. He escapes by mingling with the large crowd of festival celebrants.*
This is an early design by Kunisada, still showing a direct influence from his teacher, Utagawa Toyokuni I (一代目歌川豊國 1769-1825). Notably, this same impression is the one used for Fig. 1 in the Fiorillo article cited below. Surviving prints from Kunisada's early period are difficult to acquire, especially with colors so well preserved as in our example. For a later example by Kunisada of the Danshichi role, see KNS05.
References: KNP-5, p. 564; * For much more about this play and related Danshichi mono, see John Fiorillo, "The Beauty of Cruelty: The Origins of Danshichi and His Evolution as a Tattooed Anti-hero in Natsu matsuri." Andon, Society for Japanese Arts, 2009, no. 87; 27-43.