Katô Masakiyo was based on the historical Katô Kiyomasa (1562-1611), a samurai who served Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The son of a blacksmith, and later a notorious persecutor of Christians, he became legendary for his ferocity in battle, gaining respect and power from his mid-twenties on, until he commanded part of the Toyotomi forces in the Korean campaigns of 1592 and 1597. He was recalled the next year following Hideyoshi’s death. Although he next allied himself with Tokugawa Ieyasu—one of Hideyoshi’s generals and the eventual founder of the hereditary dynasty of Tokugawa shoguns—he ran afoul of Ieyasu after opposing a plan to murder Hideyoshi’s son, Hideyori. Kiyomasa’s death in 1611 was suspicious, possibly the result of poisoning on orders from Ieyasu.
In kabuki, his tale takes an ominous turn when circumstances force Kiyomasa to meet with Kitabatake (a theatrical stand-in for the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose portrayal in theater or literature was banned by the shogunate). Kitabatake gives Masakiyo a poisoned cup of saké, which he drinks, knowing it will be fatal. He nevertheless manages to stay alive for months to protect his lord until he finally succumbs to the deadly brew.
There were two competing Osaka productions in 1/1827 of Keisei Asoyama sakura (けいせい遊山桜), one at Kado Theater for which Shigeharu created his portrait of Nakamura Utaemon III, and one at the Naka Theater. A star actor in the Naka production was Ichikawa Ebijûrô I (1777-1827), ranked in the yakusha hyôbanki (actor evaluation books: 役者評判記) as hakudai-jô-jô-kichi (almost grand - superior - superior - excellent). Sadly, it would be Ebijûrô's final appearance on stage, as he would die six months later.
The two impressions of Shigeharu's design that are offered here provide unusual examples of early and late editions. The first, shown at the top left, is a shôzuri ("first printing" or "front printing": 正摺), the initial edition from original woodblocks. It also identifies the expert block-cutter by his seal reading hori Kasuke (cut by Kasuke: ホリかけスケ). The later impression at the upper right is a namizuri-e (ordinary edition print: 並摺絵), typically a print of commonplace quality. There is obvious wear to the keyblock. Another signifier is the removal of the Kasuke seal. Both editions feature a yellow background.
The full-frontal, confrontational depiction of an actor is an uncommon design choice and in this instance, helps to evoke the fierce nature of Masakiyo, who was nicknamed Kishôkan, the "Devil General." He wears his clan mon (crest: 紋) on his helmut and breastplate.
This pair of prints illustrate superbly how editions could differ even when there are no deluxe effects (metallics, embossing, etc.) applied to the shôzuri printing.
References: WAS IV-5, no. 291; OK, no. 55;