The play Kokusenya kassen (Battles of Kokusenya: 國性爺合戦), 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).
Ukiyo-e print designers and their publishers continually searched for ways to present close-up portraits or okubi-e ("large-head pictures": 大首絵) in innovative visual displays. So, for example, there were okubi-e within roundels or rectangles (with or without frames) representing reflected faces in mirrors. Some of these even applied mica dust (kirazuri or mica printing: 雲母摺) mimicking mirror surfaces. There was, as well, some influence from imported European telescopes, suggesting that at least some of the roundel okubi-e were meant to be parsed as scopic views, zooming in on the actor's face when he was on stage or back in his dressing room. Another approach was to place the bust portrait within the outline of an uchiwa (non-folding fan: 團扇 or 団扇), the idea being that, in the summer season, the more fanatical kabuki fans could be cool by fanning themselves with a cut and pasted uchiwa-e ... or at least fantasize doing it.
The least common but arguably most distinctive type of okubi-e were those designed for hagoita (Japanese battledores: 羽子板). Hagiota date back at least 600 years, when the imperial court played a form of badminton called hanetsuki (羽根突き or 羽子突き). Throughout the Edo period and beyond, women played the game, often in fancy kimono, as one of the ritual activities to celebrate the New Year. Eventually, the hagiota was adopted as a resonant symbol of that very special season for Japanese, and households began to include an elaborately-decorated, not-for-use presentation paddle as part of their holiday display. Moreover, some of the hagiota okubi-e that were actually cut from their original sheets and pasted on paddles were sold as souvenirs at temples and shrines.
Yoshikuni might have found inspiration for his design in a series by the Edo master Utagawa Kunisada (歌川國貞 1786-1865), 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 principles followed by his Utagawa studio.
Watônai (和藤内) was a signature role for Arashi Kitsusaburô II (嵐橘三郎), who would become Arashi Rikan II (嵐璃寛). In Yoshikuni's design, the truncation of forms seems just right, presenting more than enough information about the legendary hero while also accommodating the hagiota framing. The expressive nigao (facial likeness: 似顔) commands the center of attention. Watônai's head-cord is fashioned as a kabuki-style ikarizuna ("anchor rope": 碇綱) reflecting his fisherman's roots. The red polka-dot robe is a kata ("form" or kabuki convention: 型) for this role. As Watônai grips his long sword with his left hand, he holds with his right hand a large tablet inscribed with partly visible characters reading Heian jingû (referring to the Shintô shrine at Ise: 平安神宮). In a famous legend in which Watônai subdues a ferocious tiger, he is aided by his mother who gives him a sacred charm from the Ise Shrine.
Yoshikuni's hagiota okubi-e is one of the finest examples known in kamigata-e. Surviving impressions are very few, making this a most desirable acquisition for a private or public collection.
For more about hagiota okubi-e, see Battling for your Attention.
References: KNZ, no. 302; OK, no. 39; KNP-6, p. 115; IKB-I, no. 2-390; NKE, p. 347.