Katakiuchi Ganryûjima (Revenge at Ganryû Island: 敵討巌流島) was one of the many popular tales of vengeance and retribution staged in kabuki. These "revenge plays" were called katakiuchi mono (敵討物) or adauchi mono (仇打ち物). The plot of Katakiuchi Ganryûjima is unknown to us, although it must be related to other revenge dramas involving the legendary Miyamoto Musashi, such as Katakiuchi nitô no eiyûki (A tale of revenge and great courage: 復讐二島英勇記). In one scene from that play, Musashi adroitly uses a wood sword — a deadly weapon in the hands of a master — to slay the murderer of his father. In another legend, Musashi challenged his long-time rival and expert swordsman Sasaki Kojirô (佐々木 小次郎, also known as Ganryû Kojirô, (1585? – April 13, 1612; his fighting name Ganryû meaning "large rock style" 巌流) to a duel on the remote Ganryû Island (at Funashima, the strait between Honshû and Kyûhsû). Legendary or not, Kojirô is considered Musashi's most formidable opponent, and the last one he killed. In the duel, Musashi is said to have fashioned a very long wooden sword (bokken 木剣 or bokutô 木刀) from an oar while traveling by boat to the arranged duel. In Shigeharu's print illustrated here, Musashi indeed holds a bokken, although it is of conventional length.
The historical Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584-1645; 宮本 武蔵), whose name meant "Storehouse of military knowledge," was born in Mimasaka or Harima, Japan. He became a legendary swordsman and the son of the celebrated fencing master Yoshioka Tarozaemon, a retainer of the Ashikaga shôgun Yoshiteru. Musashi was a bold and reputedly reckless adventurer who nevertheless survived armed combat more than 60 times and died a natural death on June 13, 1645 in Higo. Today, Musashi is widely known in the West as the author of Gorin no sho (The Book of Five Rings: 五輪書), a treatise on military tactics, strategy, and philosophy. After its first English translation in 1974, the book captured the popular imagination and was studied earnestly by business executives in the West to understand Japanese management techniques and strategies used during Japan's rise to economic power (since then, of course, somewhat diminished).
The actor Sawamura Gennosuke II (1802-1853) was born in Edo, the son of an usher at the Izumiya, a teahouse within the Ichimura Theater. By the start of 1830 he had attained a high ranking in the yakusha hyôbanki (actor evaluation books: 評判記) and took the name Sawamura Tosshô I in late 1831. He continued to rise in the rankings, making a name for himself particularly as a tachiyaku (leading man: 立役). He was said to be a good dancer and was a skilled onnagata (lit., "woman's manner", i.e., a performer of women's roles: 女方 or 女形). His contemporaries admired his poetry, an example of which is inscribed on Shigeharu's print. Other acting names followed until he became Suketakaya Takasuke III in 1852, the year before he died.
This is a rare design, unknown to us in any of the standard publications or collections. The preservation of color is remarkable. The poem is signed "Tosshô" (Gennosuke's haimyô or poetry name, as well as his acting name from 1831 to 1844).
References: IKB-I, no. 15-22, p. 246