The historical Minamoto no Yorimasa (1104-1180) served eight different sovereigns in his long career, holding posts such as hyôgo no kami (head of the arsenal). He was also a prominent poet whose works appeared in various anthologies. In 1179 he entered the Buddhist priesthood and took the name Gen Sanmi Nyûdô.
Although he had allied himself with the Taria clan against the Minamoto during the Hôgen no ran (Hôgen civil war; 1156-59) and the Heiji no ran (Heiji civil war; 1160), he switched allegiance and led the Minamoto forces against the Taira in 1180. Suffering defeat at Uji, he committed suicide in the Byôdô Temple.
The legendary Yorimasa is forever associated with slaying the mythical Nue in 1153 — as recorded in the Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike; first quarter 13th century). Yorimasa, who was a formidable archer, spied on the emperor's palace roof a strange winged-creature with an ape's head, tiger's claws, badger's (tanuki) back, and snake-head tail. As the emperor was suffering from a life-threatening illness, Yorimasa suspected that the Nue was the cause. A single arrow took down the beast, whereupon Yorimasa's retainer (Ino Hayata Tadazumi) delivered the coup de grâce with his sword.
This performance of Yorimasa by Kitsusaburô II (formerly Tokusaburô I; later Rikan II; 1788-1837) was part of a first-year memorial program for his illustrious predecessor, Arashi Kitsusaburô I (Rikan I; 1769-9/1821). It also featured a shûmei or accession ceremony — here the passing on of an acting name to a successor — through which Tokusaburô I became Kitsusaburô II. As Kitsusaburô I's final performance before his fatal illness was as Yorimasa in 8/1821, the role held the utmost symbolic significance for the Arashi lineage, their fans, and the Kamigata theatrical world.
Kitsusaburô II wears voluminous robes, the upper section patterned with rindô mon (gentian crests) associated with the Minamoto (Genji) clan. His headgear is called a hikitate eboshi ("bird-hat pulled upright"), one of the pliable hats worn by samurai.
This composition is known by only the two sheets illustrated above; a third portrait has never surfaced. The mismatch of the torch spanning the two sheets does not indicate severe trimming — occasionally companion sheets, printed independently, were positioned without accurate vertical alignment across sheets. Also curious is the omission of the artist's signature on the right sheet — perhaps the design was added hastily to the left sheet for the 9/1822 memorial performance.
Shigenobu was an Edo artist (and the son-in-law of Katsushika Hokusai) who worked in Osaka from 1822-25. He was known in Osaka for his surimono (privately issued prints) and portrayals of beauties in the costume parades at Shinmachi; his Osaka actor designs are extremely rare, and this one is especially notable for the remarkable preservation of its colors.
References: IKBYS-II, no. 180; KNP-6, p. 90; IKB-I, 2-382