Kanadehon chûshingura (Copybook of the treasury of loyal retainers:假名手本忠臣蔵, often called simply "The Forty-seven Rônin") is the most celebrated of revenge plays (adauchi mono: 仇打ち物), first written as an eleven-act bunraku (puppet play: 文楽) premiering in August 1748 at the Takemoto-za theater in the Dôtonbori entertainment district of Osaka. A nearly identical kabuki adaptation appeared later that same year. The title is also written with a different and simpler first character (仮). The Chûshingura theatrical tale was based on actual events from 1703 when former retainers of the lord of the Akô domain, Asano Naganori, exacted revenge by murdering Lord Kira Yoshinaka, who had (apparently) so enraged their lord that Asano attempted to murder Yoshinaka. Asano's action was a serious violation of the samurai code of behavior within a shogunal palace, whose punishment resulted in Asano's seppuku ("incision of the abdomen," ritual suicide: 切腹).
The oldest surviving Chûshingura play is Goban Taiheiki (Chronicle of great piece played on a chessboard) written in 1706 by Japan's foremost playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (近松門左衛門 1653-1725). The plot involves the historical Kô no Moronao (高師直 died 1351), who was the first to hold the position of Shitsuji (Shogun's deputy) and became general of the Shogun's (Ashikaga) armies, which defeated the forces of the southern court in the fourteenth century. However, the genesis of Chikamatsu's story can be found in a puppet play also by him written less than a month earlier called Kenkô hôshi monomigurugusa (The sightseeing carriage of the priest Kenkô), in which the priest persuades a general named Kô no Moronao to transfer his unwanted libidinous attentions from a court lady to the wife of Enya Hangan. When she rejects Moronao, he denounces her husband and forces him to commit seppuku. Thus the catalyst for future theatrical treatments and their various expositions of the vendetta had been set by two Chikamatsu plays in 1706. Also established was the transfer to the sekai (world or sphere: 世界) of the fourteenth century. Naturally, this sekai resonated with another rousing saga, the Taiheiki (Chronicle of great peace:太平記), a historical epic from that era covering the period 1319-67. It deals primarily with the Nanboku-chô (1336-92), a period of war between the Northern Court of Ashikaga Takauji in Kyoto and the Southern Court of Emperor Go-Daigo in Yoshino. The foremost puppet and kabuki version, the 1748 Kanadehon chûshingura, presents a re-imagined vendetta by the retainers of Enya Hangan (a provincial lord or daimyô) who committed seppuku after a confrontation incited by Kô no Moronao (a chief councilor to the Shogun).
The doubling structure of the Taiheiki epic/plays with the Chûshingura dramas revolve around refashionings of the real-life Kô no Moronao. In the historical Taiheiki, he is portrayed as a villain who is accused of unbridled violence, greed, and lewdness. It is this earlier, long-standing reputation that must have appealed to the Chûshingura playwrights when they sought a villain for their revenge tale to be set in a distant sekai, as they could not name the real-life figures in the Asano affair for fear of running afoul of the shogunate's censorship edicts.
In Act III, the villain of the saga, Kô no Moronao, lord of Kamakura, is angered when Enya Hangan, lord of Asano, arrives late for a ceremony. Moronao taunts Enya, provoking him into drawing his sword and slashing Moronao, an offence punishable by death. In Act IV, Enya commits seppuku ("incision of the abdomen": 切腹), leaving behind his now masterless samurai (rônin: 浪人) who vow to take revenge, and thus the stage is set for the remainder of the saga.
This is one of Sadanobu's most sought-after designs, especially as it is an off-stage portrayal of the actor Nakamura Utaemon IV in his dressing room. He is preparing for a farewell performance after announcing he was leaving Osaka for Edo. In the first month of 1838, Utaemon IV was involved in a wage dispute with the management of the Naka Theater, and he shocked the Osaka kabuki world by deciding to leave abruptly for Edo. He performed seven of the roles in Chûshingura, a well-documented tour de force in the kabuki annals. The play provided an excellent vehicle for hengemono ("transformation piece" or brief-quick-change dances: 変化物) due to its varied cast of characters and the sheer combined length of its eleven acts. The number of multiple Chûshingura roles played by one actor seems to have varied typically from two to seven. Utaemon IV performed as Kô no Moronao (高師直), Ôboshi Yuranosuke (大星由良之助), Hayano Kanpei (早野勘平), Ono Sadakurô (斧定九郎), Tonase (となせ), Amakawaya Gihei (天川屋義平), and Teraoka Heiemon (寺岡平右衛門). The inscription at the top right reads Onagori kyôgen no uchi (Set [of prints] for a farewell play: 御名残狂言の内).
In addition, a nanabake ("seven changes": 七変化) was hastily inserted into the program to replace a previously scheduled play, Tobakari hana no Yoshino yama (The cherry blossoms on the mountains of Yoshino are blooming for the moment). The latter was, presumably, an inferior vehicle for parading Utaemon's talents. We know that the nanabake was selected as a last-minute replacement because the promotional, advance-notice tsuji banzuke ("cross-street playbill": 辻番付) does not mention the dances. Their substitution, however, made the overall production a more impressive achievement featuring seven dramatic roles and seven dance characterizations. For Utaemon IV's fans, this was a stunning "once-in-a-lifetime" display of Utaemon IV's skills as a kaneru yakusha (all-around actor: 兼ねる役者), and a ostentatious gesture to satisfy the clamor among the actor's fans to see as much of him as possible before he left Osaka. One might wonder whether Utaemon not only wanted to please his fans but also show the Naka management what they would be missing. The seven dance roles were tayû (highest ranking courtesan: 太夫); zatô (blind masseur: 座頭); Narihira (Heian-period poet: なり平 [i.e., Ariwara no Narihira, 在原業平, 825–880]); Echigo shishi [jishi] (Lion of Echigo: 越後獅子); Oharame (a woman from Ohara: 大原女); shichô (imperial servant: 仕丁); and Shôki (mythical demon queller: 鍾馗).
All-told, the fascinating and complex background to this design and Sadanobu's impressive composition make this print a worthy addition to any serious collection of Osaka ukiyo-e.
References: IKBYS-III, no. 14; HSH, no. 31; OSP, no. 181; KNP-6, p. 366; John Fiorillo & Peter Ujlaki: "Ryûsai Shigeharu: "Quick Change Dances in the Utaemon Tradition," in: Andon, Society for Japanese Arts, 2002, nos. 72-73, 115-135.