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 theatrical tale was based 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 him. 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. 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).
Kuniyoshi's Seichû gishi den (誠忠義士傳 Stories of the true loyalty of the faithful samurai), published by Ebiya Rinnosuke (海老屋林之助), was begun in August 1847 and completed in January 1848, totaling 51 prints. Its sequel, the smaller Seichû gishin den (誠忠義心傳 Stories of faithful hearts and true loyalty) comprising 17 designs (possibly 18) was issued in 1848. The series and its sequel proved to be a very popular and helped spark the production of various other works on the Chûshingura/rônin theme. Kuniyoshi alone was responsible for eleven separate series and twelve triptychs in a decade (1848-1857), accounting for 266 designs. It was an extraordinary focus on a single theme.
The inscriptions on the prints are a blend of historical information and legendary tales. The names of all the heroes are taken from kabuki as substitutes for the actual names, a necessity to avoid government censorship.
In this dramatic design, we see Mase Chûdayû Masaaki (間瀬宙太夫正明), the historical Mase Kyûdayû Masaaki (間瀬久太夫正明), seemingly aiming an arrow directly at the viewer. The inscription states that Chûdayû, at the age of 62, was nevertheless a strong samurai who entered the compound with the second wave of attackers, shouting as he released each arrow from his bow. He confronted one of his enemies, Mori Banzaemon, and with a single slash, cut Mori's head in two. He then dispatched Komori Genji with a sword thrust that severed the ribs. The inscription ends with, "The truly admirable old man's work received the plaudits of all."
Few ukiyo-e designs feature a head-on depiction of a confrontational human figure. In this instance, it serves to enhance the drama and thereby attract the viewer's attention in a more emotional manner. This is surely one of the best designs in the series, available here with fine colors.
References: MFA Boston 11.26036, 11.28912, and 11.45386.44; British Museum, no. 2008,3037.15244; Weinberg, D.; Kuniyoshi: The faithful samurai. Leiden, Hotei Publishing, 2000, pp. 126-127.