Play: The best-known play involving the role of Watônai is Kokusenya kassen (Battles of Kokusenya: 国性爺合戦), written by Japan's great Edo-period playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (近松 門左衛門 1653-1724), which has long been considered a masterpiece of Bunraku (puppet theater 文楽). First staged in 1715 at the Takemoto no Shibai, Osaka, it remains unsurpassed as the most successful play in the history of the puppet theater. Kabuki also produced many adaptations, starting in 1716 at the Miyako Mandayû Theater in Kyoto.
The hero Watônai Sankan, a fisherman by trade, was also the son of Ikkan, a former Ming minister named Tei Shiryû who had been exiled to Japan. Trained in military strategy, Watônai travels to China to aid a princess named Sendan, the younger sister of the Chinese emperor murdered by the Tartars. Watônai vows to fulfill his father's promise to restore the Ming dynasty and place Sendan on the throne. He and Ikkan travel to China, where they find Ikkan's daughter and Watônai's half-sister, Kinshôjô, married to a general named Kanki, of Ming ancestry but allied with the Tartars. In the most celebrated scene of the play, the so-called beni nagashi shishigajô ("the red signal inside the castle"), Kinshôjô, who is loyal to her father and Watônai, agrees to ask Kanki to join Watônai. However, she has them wait outside the Lion Castle for a sign of her husband's intentions: a powder — white for "yes" and red for "no" — to be tossed into cascading water flowing down to the castle moat. Kanki is sympathetic to her request but cannot take advice from a woman on military matters, as it would bring shame upon himself and his descendents. He is also bound by a promise he has made to the Tartars to kill Watônai. Always the warrior, Kanki considers murdering his wife to quell any rumors of his being a coward, but is dissuaded by Kinshôjô's stepmother (Watônai's Japanese mother, who was allowed to enter the castle to plead their cause). Upon seeing the "red signal," Watônai bursts into the Lion Castle to confront Kanki, but the two quickly become allies and Watônai is given the name Kokusenya, Lord of Enpei.
Actor: Ichikawa Gyokuen (市川玉猿), active circa mid 1850s, was a low-ranking actor associated with kodomo shanai (children's theater: 子供芝居) and shanai shibai (shrine theaters: 社内芝居) — performance venues operating within shrine or temple grounds or precincts. Specifically, he is cited as performing at the Goryô Shrine (御霊神社) under the auspices of the Sangoza (Sango troupe: 讃語座), a group of sermonizers (sekkyô: 説教 or 説経) who presented religious doctrine before audiences at various locales, as well as before private residences or in the streets. The Sangoza was organized under the auspices of the Seki Semimaru Jinja (関蝉丸神社), a shrine controlled by the Kinshôji (金昌寺), a sub-temple of the Buddhist Miidera Temple (三井寺 or 御井寺). As the troupe became more fluid during the 19th century, other types of entertainers including kabuki actors and puppeteers were licensed into the group as performers in shrine theaters.
This is an exceedingly rare woodcut, with no other impressions recorded. The publication of a jôzuri-e (deluxe print: 上摺絵) for a little-known actor who was connected primarily with kabuki at the Goryô Shrine and children's theater would have been most unusual, with an exception being made for a role he was contracted to perform at the main Kado Theater. The circumstances for this change in fortune remain unknown.
The cartouche identifies the theater, Kado no shibai (角芝居); role name, Watônai (わ都内); and actor's name, Ichikawa Gyokuen (市川玉猿).
This same impression was once in the Haber collection, New York, although it is not illustrated in Dean Schwaab's Osaka Prints (OSP ref. below). As is usual for prints once owned by Haber, the design is rare, the colors are beautifully preserved, and the printing is deluxe with extensive metallics.
- Fiorillo, John: "The Osaka Actor Ichikawa Gyokuen: A Small-Time Player Has His Moment in the Spotlight," in: Andon, Society for Japanese Arts, 2020, no. 110; 64-70.
- Groemer Gerald: Street Performers and Society in Urban Japan 1600-1900: The beggar's gift. London: Routledge, 2016, pp. 26, 51-52, 151-152, 235.
- Kanda, Yutsuki, "The traditional city of Osaka and performers," in: City, Culture and Society (3), 2012, pp. 51-57.
- NKE, p. 347 (for Kokusenya kassen).
- OSP (which illustrates many other prints from the Haber collection).
- KNP-7, p. 27.
- IKB-I, p. 51, no. 1-581.