Heike nyogo no shima was written for bunraku (ningyô jôruri or puppet theater) in 1719 by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724). The plot involves the priest Shunkan, along with Naritsune and Yasuyori, who have been exiled to Kikaigashima (Devil's Island) for their part in a conspiracy against the Heike leader, Kiyomori. Naritsune has fallen in love with a local diving woman named Chidori, and the two are married by Shunkan. Senoo no Tarô then arrives by ship to announce that Naritsune and Yasuyori have received full pardons, but a second messenger, Motoyasu, tells Shunkan that since he was the ringleader of the revolt, he cannot travel back to the capital, but may return to his home in Bizen. Senoo's orders, however, are to transport only three persons, and when he mockingly reveals that Shunkan's wife has been murdered by Kiyomori for rejecting the Heike general's advances, Shunkan kills Senoo and then tells Motoyasu that as his crime now violates the pardon, he must stay on the island. This allows the lovers Naritsune and Chidori to leave together, along with Yasuyori.
This tetrapych is a gassaku — a collaborative composition or collective work in which more than one artist is responsible for the design. Although gassaku appear from time to time, they are uncommon, especially from the earlier period of Osaka printmaking. When they were published in Kamigata (Osaka-Kyoto region), they typically involved a master and his students. There were also shared projects involving artists of equal status (some scholars argue that the term gassaku should apply only to collaborative works by artists with similar standing), or unequal reputation, as in the present instance. Here, the senior artist, Hokushû, drew only the third sheet from the right, but he portrayed the highest-ranking actor, Utaemon III. Shibakuni (active circa 1820s), who may have been a pupil of Yoshikuni, composed the remaining sheets.