Koi no tayori Yamato ôrai (The loving wife and the varicolored rope: 恋飛脚大和往来) is the best known of several kabuki reworkings of the tragic tale of the lovers Chûbei and Umegawa. The seminal theatrical production was Chikamatsu Monzaemon's (1653-1725) shinjû mono (love-suicide play: 心中物) for the puppets — Meido no hikyaku (Courier for hell: 冥途の飛脚) at the Takemoto Theater, Osaka in 3/1711. It was based on a notorious, real-life event that took place in late 1710 (the details are now lost). In Chikamatsu's play the narrator prepares the story's ending by referring to the lovers as birds caught in a snare and declaring that they were doomed not to escape. Meido no hikyaku was soon adapted by Ki no Kaion in 1713 as Keisei sando gasa. Other puppet plays followed based on the earlier productions, with kabuki offering its first entry around 1757 in Osaka. Koi no tayori Yamato ôrai premiered at the Kado theater, Osaka in 1796.
In one version of the tale, Chûbei, aged 24, is the son of a wealthy farmer in the village of Ninokuchi in Yamato province. He earns his livelihood as a postal courier in Osaka. In love with the low-ranking courtesan Umegawa, aged 22, from the Shinmachi pleasure quarter in Osaka, Chûbei steals 300 gold ryô from Edo clients to ransom his lover. They flee, but nearly run out of money after 20 days. They go into hiding in Ninokuchi, but are eventually captured and executed. In some theatrical versions, the lovers commit double suicide.
Shigeharu portrays a scene with the lovers in Ninokuchi. The snow-covered landscape is animated by a crowd of villagers in the distance.
Depictions of tragic lovers are, for unknown reasons, far less common in Osaka printmaking than in Edo, where they were especially popular, and where the unbeatable examples of Kitagawa Utamaro were published.
References: PPO, plate 67 (right sheet only): KNP-6, p. 245; NKE, p. 341