The play Kokusenya kassen (Battles of Kokusenya: 国性爺合戦), written by the great pre-modern playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) as a jidai kyôgen ningyô jôruri (historical puppet play: 時代狂言人形淨瑠璃), has long been considered a masterpiece of bunraku (puppet theater: 文楽). First staged in 1715 at the Takemoto no Shibai, Osaka, it remains unsurpassed as the most successful play in the history of bunraku. Kabuki also produced many adaptations, starting in 1716 at the Miyako Mandayû no Shibai in Kyoto.
The hero Watônai Sankan, a fisherman by trade, was also the son of Ikkan, a former Ming minister named Tei Shiryû who had been exiled to Japan. Trained in military strategy, Watônai travels to China to aid a princess named Sendan, the younger sister of the Chinese emperor murdered by the Tartars. Watonai vows to fulfill his father's promise to restore the Ming dynasty and place Sendan on the throne. He and Ikkan travel to China, where they find Ikkan's daughter and Watônai's half-sister, Kinshôjô, married to a general named Kanki, of Ming ancestry but allied with the Tartars. Kinshôjô, loyal to her father and Watônai, agrees to ask Kanki to join Watônai, but she has them wait outside the Lion Castle for a sign of her husband's intentions: a powder — white for "yes" and red for "no" — to be tossed into cascading water flowing down to the castle moat. Kanki is sympathetic to her request but cannot take advice from a woman on military matters, as it would bring shame upon himself and his descendents. He is also bound by a promise he has made to the Tartars to kill Watônai. Always the warrior, Kanki considers murdering his wife to quell any rumors of his being a coward, but is dissuaded by Kinshôjô's stepmother (Watônai's Japanese mother, who was allowed to enter the castle to plead their cause).
Yoshikuni apparently found inspiration for his design in a series by the Edo master Utagawa Kunisada, issued circa 1823 in nearly identical format and titled Tôsei oshi-e hagoita atari kyôgen no uchi ("A series of great performances: Present-day color patchwork-picture battledores": 当世押絵羽子板 • 当狂言の内). Kunisada had journeyed from Edo to Osaka in late 1820 and left around the following autumn. His visit caused quite a stir in the Osaka printmaking world as he engaged with many pupils and demonstared the techniques used by his Utagawa studio.
Yoshikuni depicted Arashi Kitsusaburô II (the future Arashi Rikan II, 嵐璃寛) in one of the actor's signature roles. He is shown within the frame of a hagoita (battledore: 羽子板), echoing a popular New Year's practice when textile portraits or printed pictures were mounted to hagoita and sold as souvenirs at temples and shrines. Watônai holds a large tablet inscribed, in part, with the characters for jingû (a reference to the sacred Shintô shrine at Ise). In a famous scene in which Watônai subdues a ferocious tiger, he is aided by his mother who gives him a sacred charm from the Ise Shrine.
Ariharadô Kôbun's chû and plum blossom seals were cut into the keyblock, whereas the small oval Wataki publisher
seal was hand-stamped to the right. Also hand-stamped was the rectangular printer seal reading suri Zakoba at the lower left.
References: KNZ, no. 302; OK, no. 39; KNP-6, p. 115; IKB-I, no. 2-390; NKE, p. 347.