Kanadehon chûshingura (Copybook of the treasury of loyal retainers:假名手本忠臣蔵, often called simply "The Forty-seven Rônin") is the most celebrated of revenge plays, first written as an eleven-act bunraku (puppet play: 文楽) premiering in August 1748 at the Takemoto-za theater in the Dôtonbori entertainment district of Osaka. A nearly identical kabuki adaptation appeared later that same year. The title is also written with a different and simpler first character (仮). The Chûshingura theatrical tale was based on on actual events from 1703 when former retainers of the lord of the Akô domain, Asano Naganori, exacted revenge by murdering Lord Kira Yoshinaka, who had (apparently) so enraged their lord that Asano attempted to murder Yoshinaka. Asano's action was a serious violation of the samurai code of behavior within a shogunal palace, whose punishment resulted in Asano's seppuku ("incision of the abdomen," ritual suicide: 切腹).
The oldest surviving Chûshingura play is Goban Taiheiki (Chronicle of great piece played on a chessboard) written in 1706 by Japan's foremost playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. The plot involves the historical Kô no Moronao (高師直 died 1351), who was the first to hold the position of Shitsuji (Shogun's deputy) and became general of the Shogun's (Ashikaga) armies, which defeated the forces of the southern court in the fourteenth century. However, the genesis of Chikamatsu's story can be found in a puppet play also by him written less than a month earlier called Kenkô hôshi monomigurugusa (The sightseeing carriage of the priest Kenkô), in which the priest persuades a general named Kô no Moronao to transfer his unwanted libidinous attentions from a court lady to the wife of Enya Hangan. When she rejects Moronao, he denounces her husband and forces him to commit seppuku. Thus the catalyst for future theatrical treatments and their various expositions of the vendetta had been set by two Chikamatsu plays in 1706. Also established was the transfer to the sekai (world or sphere: 世界) of the fourteenth century. Naturally, this sekai resonated with another rousing saga, the Taiheiki (Chronicle of great peace:太平記), a historical epic from that era covering the period 1319-67. It deals primarily with the Nanboku-chô (1336-92), a period of war between the Northern Court of Ashikaga Takauji in Kyoto and the Southern Court of Emperor Go-Daigo in Yoshino. The foremost puppet and kabuki version, the 1748 Kanadehon chûshingura, presents a re-imagined vendetta by the retainers of Enya Hangan (a provincial lord or daimyô) who committed seppuku after a confrontation incited by Kô no Moronao (a chief councilor to the Shogun).
The doubling structure of the Taiheki epic/plays with the Chûshingura dramas revolve around refashionings of the actual Kô no Moronao. In the historical Taiheiki, he is portrayed as a villain who is accused of unbridled violence, greed, and lewdness. It is this earlier, long-standing reputation that must have appealed to the Chûshingura playwrights when they sought a villain for their revenge tale to be set in a distant sekai, as they could not name the real-life figures in the Asano affair for fear of running afoul of the shogunate's censorship edicts.
Kunisada's triptych portrays Act VII, comprising a single scene known as Gion Ichiriki Jaya or "the Ichiriki Teahouse in Gion." Ôboshi Yuranosuke is the leader of a band of rônin plotting to avenge their lord Enya Hangan's ritual suicide orchestrated by the evil Kô no Moronao. Yuranosuke pretends to be forever inebriated and dissolute so as to throw off Moranao, making him think there might be no imminent danger from the rônin. At one point a letter written on a scroll by Hangan's widow, Lady Kaoyo, arrives informing Yuranosuke of Moronao's schedule. As Yuranosuke reads the long scroll, Moronao's spy Kudayû appears beneath the verandah, from where he can see only the bottom of the scroll, which he eventually tears off. At the same time, Ôkaru, Hangan Enya's former maid servant and the lover of Hangan's former retainer, Kanpei, comes into the next room, where on the higher balcony she notices and tries to read the letter to amuse herself, as it is reflected in her mirror. Kudayû's and Okaru's efforts at reading the letter compromise Yuranosuke's secret plot to avenge Hangan's death, which obligates him to kill them both. Just then, her brother Heiemon (one of Hangan's retainers) arrives to inform her that her lover Kanpei committed seppuku because of a trap set by Kudayû's henchmen. Okaru faints at the terrible news. When she recovers, she is willing to die at her brother's Heiemon's hand (as a faithful brother, he cannot let a stranger take her life) so that she might to join Kanpei in heaven. Suddenly, Yuranosuke appears. He praises Okaru and her brother for their loyalty to the rônin cause and gives his sword to Okaru, guiding her hand as she thrusts the blade between the floor boards of the verandah where Kudayû is still hiding, killing him and thus enabling her to revenge her lover's death.
Kunisada's interior scene includes a receding perspective view executed in a style called uki-e (floating picture: 浮絵 or 浮繪), first seen in ukiyo-e printmaking at least by the 1740s. Early on, the Japanese understanding of Western one-point vanishing perspective was imperfect; characteristically, the horizon line was set low and the receding space deep and sharply converged.
There are many publications on the works of Kunisada. A good introduction in English is by Sebastian Izzard (with essays by J. Thomas Rimer and John Carpenter): Kunisada's World. New York: Japan Society in collaboration with Ukiyo-e Society of America, 1993.