The historical Minamoto no Yorimasa (源の頼政 1104-1180) served eight different sovereigns in his long career, holding posts such as hyôgo no kami (head of the arsenal). He was also a prominent poet whose works appeared in various anthologies. In 1179 he entered the Buddhist priesthood and took the name Gen Sanmi Nyûdô. Although he had allied himself with the Taira (Heike 平家) clan against the Minamoto (Genji 源氏) during the Hôgen no ran (Hôgen civil war; 1156-59) and the Heiji no ran (Heiji civil war; 1160), he switched allegiance and led the Minamoto forces against the Taira in 1180. Suffering defeat at Uji, he committed suicide in the Byôdô Temple.
Yorimasa nue monogatari (Tale of Yorimasa and the nue: 頼政鵺物語) features the legend of Yorimasa, who is forever associated with slaying the mythical nue (鵺) in 1153 — as recorded in the Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike; first quarter 13th century). Yorimasa, who was a formidable archer who, looking up at the emperor's palace roof, caught sight of a strange winged-creature with an ape's head, tiger's claws, badger's (tanuki) back, and snake-head tail. As the emperor was suffering from a life-threatening illness, Yorimasa suspected that the nue was the cause. A single arrow took down the beast, whereupon Yorimasa's retainer (Ino Hayata Tadazumi) delivered the coup de grâce with his sword.
Arashi Rikan II (嵐璃寛 1788–1837) was a leading actor in Kamigata during the years 1828-1837. Although small in stature, he was blessed with a striking appearance, particularly his large expressive eyes (his nickname was Metoku, "powerful eyes" 目徳). He was not a skilled dancer, but nevertheless succeeded in a wide range of dramatic roles, especially those highlighting male characters (tachiyaku: 立役). These can be found in both of the principal kabuki genres — history plays (jidaimono: 時代物) and domestic dramas (sewamono: 世話物). He excelled in performing “righteous men” (jitsugotoshi: 實事師); evil characters (irogataki and akuba: 色敵 and 悪婆); "old men" (oyajigata: 親仁方) and "old women" (rôjo: 老女); gentle-style (wagoto: 和事) men; and at the opposite pole, rough-stuff characters (aragoto: 荒事), as well as imposing wrestlers (sumô rikishi: 相撲力士). There was an outpouring of grief in the kabuki world following Rikan’s passing. “Death prints” (shini-e: 死絵) and memorial prints (tsuizen-e: 追善絵) were published as tributes from artists such as Ganjôsai Kunihiro, Sekkôtei Hokumyô, Tessai Nobukatsu, Hasegawa Sadanobu, and Hasegawa Sadaharu.
In one of his signature roles, Rikan II is shown performing as Yorimasa (より政). This hagiographic stage character had the utmost symbolic significance for the Arashi acting family, their fans, and the broader Kamigata theatrical world, as it was one of the triumphant roles for Rikan's great predecessor and founder of the lineage, Arashi Rikan I (1769–1821; also called Kitsusaburô I and Rikan I, and nicknamed Ô-Rikan, "Grand Rikan"). The present Rikan II performed as Yorimasa as early as 9/1822 at the Naka Theater, Osaka (when he was called Kitsusaburô II) for a one-year memorial performance honoring Ô-Rikan.
Sadahiro's design exploits the atmosphere of a pitch-black stormy night to great effect. Mandarin orange blossoms (tachibana, Rikan’s acting crest: 橘) fall to the ground during an ominous windstorm. Yorimasa's headgear is called a hikitate eboshi ("bird-hat pulled upright": 引立烏帽子), one of the pliable hats worn by samurai. Dressed in elegant, billowing robes nearly the width of the entire sheet, Rikan II sports a sword scabbard covered in yellow and black striped tiger's fur (partly visible on the left behind his right arm). He holds the bow and arrow that he will use to bring down the nue.
It might seem curious that Sadahiro depicted falling tachibana blossoms, as they bloom in the spring, whereas this production was staged during the autumn of 1836. Indeed, the artist Hokuei designed a triptych for this same performance in which seasonally appropriate maple leaves scatter in the windstorm (see WAS and IKBYS references below). However, kabuki being an actor-centered entertainment, Sadahiro apparently felt no concern about trumpeting the Arashi acting lineage and its crest by substituting tachibana. Also exceedingly unusual, above Yorimasa's head we can see swirling gray patterns simulating smoke from the flaming torch. This rare printing effect may possibly represent an experimental attempt at depicting smoke against a black sky (see detail image at right). We have not encountered another impression of this design with such an effect.
Very few impressions seem to have survived. We have had only three in more than two decades, and neither of the great institutional collections of Osaka prints in Japan — Ikeda Bunko Library in Osaka and Waseda University in Tokyo — has an impression.
KNP-6: p. 325; WAS-IV, no. 572; IKBYS-II, no. 385 (L & C only)