Keisei sato no funauta (けいせい廓船諷), which premiered in 1/13/1810 (February 16 on the western calendar), was written by Chikamatsu Tokuzô and Namiki Miyosuke. It adapted a previously dramatized five-act kabuki play from 1771 (Namiki Shôzô's Kuwanaya Tokuzô irifune monogatari: 桑名屋徳蔵入船物語) about a ship's captain named Kuwanaya Tokuzô, including, most notably, a scene on a rough sea with Tokuzô and the ghost of a courtesan called Higaki. Legend has it that when his vessel was about to sink in a fierce tempest, Tokuzô bargained with an ominous sea monster and succeeded in saving his ship. Keisei sato no funauta was so successful that the usual kabuki run of about a month was extended until 3/1/1810 (April 4 on the western calendar). Subsequently, both plays were staged quite often, but only in Kamigata, never in Edo.
The plot of Keisei sato no funauta is not known to us, but it would appear that the courtesan Hishigaki is the play's stand-in for the earlier role of the prostitute Higaki. If this is so, Hishigaki is killed in Act III by Tokuzô, who throws her into the sea. This was the result of a plot by the father of Takamaru Kamejirô, a young man of the Sanuki clan who has neglected his family duties to host a banquet for the Ashikaga shogun Yoshimitsu because of his obsessive love for Higashi. In the same act, the ghost of Higashi hovers above the sea and proceeds to converse with Tokuzô, who tells her that he drowned her to prevent Kamejirô from bringing dishonor upon his family. He admits that he did so reluctantly, and when he swears a vow of loyalty to the ghost, she finally disappears. Tokuzô is then able to steer the ship toward land and deliver Kamejirô to his family.
In Sadanobu's print, Hishigaki's ghost rises up to the stage by way of a seri-age (セリ上げ) or "lifting trap," a stage device used for raising a large square platform. This is a most unusual "reveal" in ukiyo-e prints, which rarely show the seri-age in operation. A shinka (spirit flame: 神火), in this instance attached to a pole and presumably held by a stagehand, can be seen flickering behind her.
It was at this production that the actor Nakayama Noshio II (1790-1858) took a new stage name, Nakayama Yoshio III. He was perhaps the last great onnagata (specialist in female roles: 女方 or 女形) of the Edo period.
This is a rare design for which we know of only two other impressions; one in the Museum of Fines Arts, Boston (acc. nos. 11.36436, 11.36437) and another in the Kubusô Memorial Museum of Art (illustrated in their 2004 catalog; see below).
References: Kubo Tsunehiko fushi korekushiyoso: Ukiyo-e hanga, Kubo Tsunehiko and Sons Collection, ukiyo-e prints. Izumi City: 2004, no. 38-74.