The historical Ishikawa Goemon was a notorious masterless samurai (rônin) during the reign of the shôgun Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At age sixteen he murdered three men while attempting to steal from his master. After his escape, he lived as a bandit for the next two decades until, in 1594, he was finally captured during a failed attempt to kill Hideyoshi. Goemon met a grisly end by being boiled in oil.
The theatrical Goemon was transformed into a hero — fearless, elusive, and endowed with magical powers. The first staging of Goemon’s exploits occurred in the 1680s. Kinmon gosan no kiri premiered in 1788 as a five-act drama (it was renamed to Sanmon gosan no kiri for its premiere in Edo in 1800). It recounts Goemon's efforts to take revenge against Mashiba Hisayoshi (a pseudonym for the historical Hideyoshi), the enemy of both his adoptive and natural fathers. The gosan ("five, three [of paulownia]") in the title refers to the five flowers on the three stems above the paulownia (kiri) leaves, Hideyoshi’s particular version of the kiri crest, for centuries symbolic of imperial and shogunal power.
As he admires the beautiful hanging cherry blossoms, a hawk flies to Goemon atop the main gate of the Nanzen Temple in Kyoto. The bird holds a kimono sleeve in its beak with an inscription — written in blood — informing him that his murdered father was involved in a plot to overthrow Hideyoshi in the name of the Chinese emperor.
Goemon is depicted on the balcony of the Nanzen Temple gate, where he is hiding from Hisayoshi, though still finding the time to enjoy smoking his tobacco pipe (kiseru) and admire the cherry blossoms (visible at the lower left). Below the balcony a "pilgrim" will soon appear — Hisayoshi in disguise, hunting for his enemy Goemon. The bandit's bushy wig was meant to signal that he had been on the run for months and thus unable to shave his pate.
The temple gate represented one of kabuki's most impressive settings, with a magnificent vermillion gate elevated by a mechanical lift and rising high above the stage.
Note: Another impression of this design is featured in the 2005-06 exhibition and catalogue Kabuki Heroes on the Osaka Stage, 1780-1830 at the British Museum, Osaka Museum of History, and Waseda University Theatre Museum.
For another print in our current sales gallery depicting Goemon, see HKS08. [Will open in new window.]
References: IKBYS-I, no. 365; KHO, no. 260; NKE, p. 551