The play Keisei setsugekka (Courtesan: Sun, moon, and flowers: けいせい雪月花) premiered at the Kado Theater at the New Year in 1830. It was written by the superstar actor Nakamura Utaemon III under his penname Kanazawa Ryûgoku. Later, just one act (called Kari no tayori) was taken from the whole and performed as a light-hearted piece without the drama featured in the larger play. It is this extracted piece that is mostly known today.
Osaka's biggest star, Nakamura Utaemon III, not only authored the play, but performed as Ishikawa Goemon opposite Arashi Rikan II's Mashiba Hisatsugu (the historical Toyotomi Hidetsugu, 1568-95) in one of the many tales about the historical and legendary rônin bandit Goemon who, in real life, at the age of sixteen, murdered three men during a robbery. He was finally captured many years later in 1594, when the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) had him boiled in oil.
The Ishikawa Goemon mono (plays about Ishikawa Goemon: 石川 五右衛門物) endowed the bandit with supernatural powers and devilish abilities to disguise himself, which provided playwrights with opportunities for fantastical action — often aided by clever stagecraft — and surprising plot twists. The plot of the present jidaimono ("period piece" or history play: 時代物) is very complicated, especially as many characters were well known from various sekai ("worlds" or spheres: 世界), that is, they were derived from other kabuki and puppet plays as well as historical accounts and legends. As was the case for the present play, sekai often served as devices for presenting "doubling structures" wherein audiences could enjoy clever juxtapositions of contemporary and historical events and characters.
The cast for this production was highly unusual, because after fires destroyed all three theaters in Edo in 3/1829, a number of renowned Edo actors relocated temporarily in Osaka to perform there while the Edo theaters were rebuilt. The 1/1830 premiere production was a huge hit, featuring Edo's Ichikawa Hakuen II (the name used by the mega-star Ichikawa Danjûrô VII while acting in Osaka), Nakamura Matsue III, Matsumoto Kôshirô V, and Sawamura Kunitarô II. The same cast traveled to Kyoto to perform Keisei setsugekka in the third month. Besides Hokushû, seemingly all the top-level artists designed prints for this play, including Ashiyuki, Hokuei, Kunihiro, Shigeharu, and Yoshikuni.
This deluxe triptych relies upon one of the standard arrangements in ukiyo-e prints — an actor's tableau across several sheets — wherein the principal actors strike poses and enegage one other visually. On the left-hand sheet, Mashiba holds a lantern (andon: 行灯) and grips his long sword (katana: 刀) with his other hand (note also the short sword, or wakizashi, 脇差). Paulownia crests (kiri: 桐), long associated with the ruling elite, are part of the design on his black robe, while the actor Rikan's crest, the orange blossom (tachibana: 橘), decorates his red sleeve. The block cutting and printing of this sheet are especially skillful, given the complexity of the patterns in the robe worn by Rikan. The black clouds — which span all three sheets — add an unifying design element and atmosphere of drama to the composition.
References: IKBYS-II, no. 29