Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (Tôkaidô ghost story at Yotsuya: 東海道四谷怪談) is masterful kaidan mono (ghost play: 怪談物) written in 1825 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV (鶴屋南北 1755-1829). The main theme in this most popular of all kabuki ghost plays involves Tamiya Iemon (民谷伊右衛門), Oiwa's husband and a down-on-his-luck rônin reduced to making oil-paper umbrellas. Iemon despairs over his ill fortune, made worse by Oiwa (お岩), who is struggling in her postpartum convalescence and nursing a newborn child. He finds temptation in a neighbor's young daughter named Itô Oume (伊藤お梅), and is persuaded by her grandfather Itô Kihei (伊藤喜兵衛) to give Oiwa a "medicinal potion" — actually a poison — meant to disfigure her so that Iemon will divorce her. Oiwa drinks the potion and her face takes on a monstrous countenance. In Act II, having seen her disfigured face in a mirror, she tries to push past a former brothel owner and now Iemon's servant Takuetsu (宅悦), but accidentally cuts her throat with a sword, dying as she curses Iemon. When Kobotoke Kohei (小佛小平), Iemon's former servant, steals the traditional medicine of the Tamiya family, Iemon catches Kohei and murders him. Then he has his men nail the bodies of Oiwa and Kohei to the opposite sides of a door and throw them into a river, attempting to link Oiwa and Kohei as lovers. At the close of Act 2, on the night of his wedding, Iemon kills Oume and Itô Kihei when he is driven to distraction by devious tricks played by the ghosts of Oiwa and Kohei. Oiwa's ghost continues to haunt Iemon relentlessly. In Act V, she tracks him down in a hermitage at Hebiyama (Snake Mountain: 蛇山) where he is taking refuge. He is finally slain by a rônin (a "wave man" or " floating man," i.e., masterless samurai: 浪人) named Satô Yomoshichi (佐藤与茂七) along with the sister of a servant he has murdered. Yomoshichi was once a vassal of Lord Enya Hangan (塩谷判官), a samurai who was forced to commit seppuku in the great katakiuchi-mono (revenge-killing play: 敵討物 or adauchi-mono: 仇打ち物) titled Kanadehon chûshingura (Copybook of the treasury of loyal retainers: 假名手本忠臣蔵), from which Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan was adapted. Yomoshichi, who in Chûshingura is bethrothed to Oiwa's sister, the prostitute Osode (おそで), a part-time pleasure woman, joined the rônin vendetta against Kô no Moronao, the nemesis of their deceased master Hangan.
Onoe Kikugorô III was one of the greatest kaneru yakusha (all-around actors: 兼ねる役者) in kabuki history. His stage rivalry with Ichikawa Danjûrô VII (1791-1859) pitched the fans of both actors into spirited competitions, each coterie claiming that its hero was the greatest actor of his generation, while his alliance with the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV (1755 - 1829) resulted in the best known of kabuki's kaidan mono (ghost plays: 怪談物), when in 7/1825 Kikugorô premiered the role of Oiwa in Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan.
The snake wrapped around the hanging robe is associated with Hebiyama (Snake Mountain: 蛇山), where Iemon has taken refuge in a hermitage in Act V.
Very little is known about Toyohide (豊秀). His family name was Kitagawa (北川), and he also used the geimei (art names: 芸名) Ichiryûtei (一𣴑亭) and Isshintei (一信亭). He was active a few years before and a year after the start of the Tenpô kaikaku (Tenpô Reforms: 天保改革) of 1842, edicts that virtually halted print production in Osaka for five years. Toyohide's prints date from 1838 to 1843. On at least two print designs (including the present example), his signature appears within a toshidama-style cartouche ("New Year's jewel" or "New Year's gift," a type of year seal used as the crest of the Utagawa school of artists), suggesting a possible connection with the Edo-based artist Utagawa Kunisada (歌川國貞 later Toyokuni III 豊國 1786-1865), although Toyohide's use of "Toyo" (豊) in his name precedes Kunisada's taking of the Toyokuni name in 1844 and could suggest that Toyohide might have had an early apprenticeship with Utagawa Toyokuni I (歌川豊國 1769-1825), albeit more than a decade before Toyohide's first known prints. To complicate matters further, the Osaka print scholar Hendrick Lühl (unpublished correspondence) has determined that there was a second artist named Toyohide (dates unknown), also signing "Kitagawa Toyohide" or simply "Toyohide," who worked in the post-Tenpô chûban format (circa 1847-63). No pupils of the first Toyohide have been identified.
Toyohide's documented designs, which number only around a dozen, are rarely encountered, even more so in good condition, as here.
References: IKBYS-III, no. 217; NKE, p. 651.