Chronicles of the Genpei (源平) wars between the Heike (平家, also called Taira, 平) and the Genji (源氏, also called Minamoto: 源) clans in 1184, and especially its hero, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, were very popular subjects for ukiyo-e prints and ehon. The two primary sources were the Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike: 平家物語), first compiled around 1220, and the Genpei seisuiki (History of the Rise and Fall of the Genji and Heike: 源平盛衰記), covering the period 1160-1185.
Chronicles and legends combine to tell us that at the battle of Mt. Ishibashi in 1181, Kajiwara Heizô Kagetoki (梶原平三景時, died 1200) initially fought for the Taira and defeated Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝, 1149-99), the older half brother of the legendary Minamoto no Yoshitsune (源義経, 1159-89). Kagetoki tracked down Yoritomo hiding in the mountains but purposely misled his troops in another direction, and soon afterwards allied himself with Yoritomo, becoming his ichi no rôdô (number one aide), serving as field commander, superintendent of logistics and warriors, and inspector-general of officers. In the field, he was ranked saburai daishô (general of soldiers), just below Yoshitsune (ranked sô-daishô, general of the army). Kagetoki, however, would not defer to Yoshitsune, regarding himself as Yoritomo's o-daikan (special deputy). In a celebrated dispute involving preparations for a naval battle, at which the Minamoto were not experienced, Kagetoki suggested that the boats be fitted with oars to enable them to move backwards if needed, whereupon Yoshitsune accused him of cowardice, asking why a warrior would plan a retreat from the outset. Kagetoki argued that a great general attacks when it is right to do so, and retreats when he must, so as to live another day to defeat his enemy. Yoshitsune responded that he knew only one way to engage the enemy—fighting all out to win. Kagetoki would later spread lies about Yoshitsune, which contributed to Yoritomo's suspicions about his all-too-famous sibling who was an exceptional and inspirational military leader. Ultimately, Yoritomo turned against Yoshitsune, sending an army to defeat him and forcing Yoshitsune to take the lives of his wife, children, and himself.
The series title, Chûkô jûnishi no uchi (Twelve zodiacal signs of loyalty and filial piety: 忠孝十二支之内) was a variation on a popular thematic grouping used often just after the Tenpô kaikaku (Tenpô Reforms: 天保改革), edicts that in 7/1842 banned actor prints in Osaka, virtually halting print production in Kamigata for five years. A gradual weakening of enforcement ensued despite reiterations in 1844 and 1845 by the government of its intention to continue the reforms, and by 1847 relatively normal print production had resumed, although printmakers played their cards close to their vests for nearly a decade afterwards. One sign of this caution was the rather transparent use of didactic or moralizing titles (in the present example, the key concepts are chûkô, 忠孝, loyalty and filial piety) to endow a print with a loftier purpose, a made-to-order ruse for applying a veneer of neo-Confucian principles. Another was the omission of actor names, although patrons of yakusha-e hardly needed the inscribed names, as the physiognomies were easily identifiable, and they would have also been intimately familiar with current stage productions.
We have not uncovered the precise narrative details of the play Kajiwara Heizô kôbai tazuna (Plum blossom reins of Kajiwara Heizô: 梶原平三紅梅[たずな]*), premiering in 3/1821 at the Kado no shibai. No longer performed, it was written by the superstar actor Nakamura Utaemon III under his dramaturgical name, Kanazawa Ryûgoku (he also played the title role). Utaemon adapted the third act of Miura no Ôsuke kôbai tazuna (The plum-blossom reins of Miura no Ôsuke), first performed as a ningyô jôruri (puppet play: 人形淨瑠璃) in 2/1730 at the Takemoto no shibai, Osaka; the first kabuki adaptation took place six months later at the Kado no shibai, Osaka in 8/1730. Today, the play's most exciting scene is performed independently as Kajiwara Heizô homare no ishikiri (The stone-cutting feat of Kajiwara Heizô; also called Ishikira Kajiwara, "Stone-cutting Kajiwara"), in which Kajiwara slices a stone water basin in two to demonstrate the supreme quality of a rare sword. Kabuki records suggest that it was not often performed during the nineteenth century, but by the middle of the twentieth century, it had become a kabuki standard. The role of Kajiwara is particularly interesting, as he is portrayed, it would seem fictionally, as conflicted in his loyalties between the Heike and the Genji, and in a more positive manner than is found in some other plays.
The scene shown in Sadanobu's design appears to come at the end of a dramatic stone-cutting feat where the playwright Utaemon III has eliminated Kajiwara's slicing the water basin in favor of his lopping off the head of a stone lion.
For a related subject on backwards-rowing, see HKE25.
We offer here an unusual opportunity to acquire a deluxe chûban nishiki-e that has, for more than a century, been stored properly and never put in an album.
References: HSH, no. 133; IKB-I, no. 1-558; KNP, no. p. 525
* Our Japanese character set does not include the kanji for "tazuna," so hiragana has been substituted within brackets.