Sukeroku yukari no Edo sakura (Sukeroku: Flower (lit., kinsman) of Edo: 助六由縁江戸桜) has been a huge hit with audiences since its premiere in 1713, when Ichikawa Danjûrô II introduced the play, thereby initiating nearly two centuries of intimate association between the play and the Ichikawa acting lineage. This sewamono ("everyday piece" or domestic play: 世話物), which was originally part of a larger play (Hana yakata aigo no sakura), is a mitate (analogue: 見立) of the legendary revenge tale Soga monogatari (Tales of the Soga: 曾我物語), with Sukeroku standing in for Soga no Gorô and his brother Shinbei, disguised as a shirozake-uri (white-sake seller: 白酒うり), representing Soga no Jûrô. By the mid-eighteenth century, Sukeroku had been reduced to a lengthy one-act play. In 1832, Ichikawa Danjûrô VII (1791-1851: 市川団十郎) included Sukeroku among the Ichikawa jûhachiban ("Eighteen Plays of the Ichikawa": 市川十八番), the family's greatest-hits compilation.
The action takes place at the Miura-ya, a brothel along Naka-no-chô, the main street in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. The courtesan Agemaki, who loves Sukeroku, is being pursued by Ikyû, an elderly samurai whom she detests. At one point, after he insults Sukeroku, Agemaki browbeats Ikyû. She is so infuriated that she cannot be restrained by Shiratama, another courtesan at the Miura-ya. Meanwhile, Sukeroku has been distracted from his vendetta against his father's murderer (à la Soga) because he is searching for his stolen heirloom sword (named "Tomokirimaru"), which Sukeroku must recover to restore the Taira clan to power over the Genji. His brother joins in the quest, and Sukeroku instructs him in ways to pick fights with samurai so that they will unsheath their weapons for Sukeroku to see (some of this unfolds in a comical manner). Later, Sukeroku provokes Ikyû into drawing his sword, which is indeed revealed to be "Tomokirimaru," whereupon Sukeroku vows to kill him. That evening, Sukeroku confronts Ikyû again, demanding that he return the sword. When Ikyû refuses, Sukeroku murders him, although he suffers a wound during the duel. As police rush to the scene, Sukeroku hides in a barrel of water; after they pass by, he climbs out and collapses. Agemaki comes to his aid, hiding him under her long robes as she misdirects the returning pursuers. Finally, Sukeroku makes his escape over brothel rooftops, knowing that he will rendezvous with Agemaki along the riverbank.
The actor Nakamura Matsue III (三代目 中村松江 1786-1855), later called Nakamura Tomijûrô II (二代目 中村富十郎), was a premier onnagata (lit., "woman's manner": 女方 or 女形), a male actor specializing in female kabuki roles. In real life Matsue was a flamboyant personality who favored extravagant costumes and expensive accessories, which in the eyes of government censors amounted to living above one's station in life and flagrantly violating sumptuary edicts. For failing to temper his love of excess, Tomijûrô II was banished from Osaka to other parts of Kamigata (Kyoto, Sakai, etc.) in 1843 for nearly two years. Performing here as Agemaki, Matsue stands below flowering cherry blossoms under trees that were planted each spring along the Naka-no-chô in Yoshiwara. He is adorned in elaborate robes of a kind that only the highest-ranking courtesans could afford (or their wealthy patrons). The motifs include a waterfall and a lion/peony on the obi (belt or sash: 帯), the latter a reference to a popular episode from Nô theater and kabuki — the lion dance or Shakkyo (lit., "stone bridge": 石橋), which refers to the Nô play Shakkyô when a traveler falls asleep beside a stone bridge and dreams of a lion dancing among peonies.
This is one sheet from a tetraptych (at least, as far as we know, although there might be other unidentified sheets depicting actors in additional roles). The complete design appears to be exceedingly difficult to find wholly intact. The closest we've found in the literature are the three (of four or more) somewhat faded sheets in Waseda University's Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum (WAS below). The MFAB (below) has only two sheets: Agemaki (poor condition) and Ichikawa Hakuen II (市川白猿 the Edo actor Danjûrô VII) as Sukeroku (published by Wataya Kihei; acc. #11.36209). The remaining known designs are a sheet (published by Tenmaya Kihei) portraying Nakamura Utaemon III (三代目 中村歌右衛門) as Sukeroku's brother Shinbei disguised as the shirôzake-uri (white-saké vendor 白酒売), and another sheet (published by Wataya Kihei) depicting Matsumoto Kôshirô V (松本幸四郎) as Hige no Ikyû (ひげの伊久). Considering all this, our print depicting Agemaki is relatively rare and quite fine in its colors, making it one of the best known surviving impressions.
References: WAS-IV, no. 434; MFAB (Museum Fine Arts, Boston), no. 17.3210.13; KNP-6, p. 231