This play is a fanciful adaptation
based on the tales of the Genpei wars (1156-1185), the pivotal struggle between the Minamoto (Genji) and Taira (Heike) clans.
Kumagai, one of kabuki's most celebrated roles,
was a general serving under the legendary Minamoto no Yoshitsune who had to face in battle a youth of only 15 named Atsumori,
son of a Taira general. As it happened, Kumagai owed a debt of gratitude to Atsumori's mother, for she had saved Kumagai and his wife from execution 17 years earlier. Having no other way to honor his debt, Kumagai substitutes and sacrifices his own son for Atsumori. This shocking turn of events only delays the inevitable, however, and finally Kumagai must slay Atsumori. Distraught at the loss of his son and his failure to save Atsumori, Kumagai renounces his allegiance to the Minamoto and takes the vows of a Buddhist priest.
The largest characters written at the upper right of the print read isse ichidai ("once in a lifetime performance"), as this was a design intended for a much-anticipated retirement program by Utaemon III, the greatest Osaka star of his day. Much to the delight of his fans, however, his "sayonara" was postponed, although the play went on. Also see the article Ireki.
Utaemon wears elaborate armor and carries a huge sack and a full sheath of arrows. He leads an prancing black horse outfitted in a red skirt.
References: IBKYS-I, no. 369; KNZ, no. 334; IKB-I, no. 1-438; KNP, vol. 6, p. 126; NKE, p. 206.