The retainer Satô Shirô Tadanobu (佐藤四郎忠信) was an ally and protector of Lady Shizuka Gozen (1165-1211: 静御前), the concubine of the celebrated warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189: 源義経), who was in flight from his half brother Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), Japan's military leader. In this scene, Tadanobu, betrayed by his mistress, fights off his attackers with a go board (goban), shown here thrown at an adversary at the lower left as the go markers fly off in all directions. (Tadanobu's prowess with the go board earned him the nickname Goban Tadanobu.) Tadanobu also figures prominently in the better-known play Yoshitsune senbon zakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees: 義経千本桜) — see HKE07.
Sadanobu's design is a fine example of the successful application of aniline dyes, which were first synthesized in England during the 1850s. They appeared in Japan soon after and were used regularly by the mid-1860s. The intensity of these colors, particularly the reds and purples, were considered garish by many early western collectors and critics — still a commonly held view today. Indeed, the effect of aniline dyes can be rather harsh, and there are many examples in which their indiscriminate use produces a riotous effect of clashing colors. Yet when these colorants were used judiciously, the designs are notable examples of the Japanese quest for expressions of enlightenment and sophistication during the Meiji period. In fact, many modern critics have begun to reassess how Meiji printmakers and their patrons understood these colorants, for they most likely associated them with the progress of a nation intent on modernizing and assimilating the most progressive aspects of western culture (in some Meiji circles, aniline dyes were considered kakushin no iroor "colors of progress").
The contrast between the vivid colors and the restrained depiction of flowering cherry is particularly effective. (This impression is a color variant from the one depicted in Schwaab, Osaka Prints, see OSP below.) The decorative border of three concentric squares represents the mimasu (three rice measures or triple rice-measuring boxes: 三舛), the crest of the Ichikawa lineage of actors.
References: OSP, p. 228