The play Katsuragawa renri no shigarami (Union by the weir in the Katsura River: 桂川連理柵) was originally written for bunraku (puppet theater: 文楽), premiering in 10/1776 in Osaka. It was adapted for kabuki by Namiki Gohei I (1747-1808 並木五瓶) and first staged in 5/1784 at the Naka Theater, Osaka. It was one of many shinjû mono (double suicide plays: 心中物), possibly based on a retelling of actual events. Obiya Chôemon, a married, 40-year-old obi merchant in Kyoto, falls in love with Ohan, his neighbor's 14-year-old daughter, and their affair results in her pregnancy. Chôemon's stepmother and stepbrother Gihei object to the liason and try to discredit Chôemon — with the goal of substituting Gihei in his place as family heir. They confront Chôemon with a love letter written by Ohan and addressed to "Chô." Chôemon's wife, Okinu — remaining loyal to her husband — knows of the affair and the letter, and persuades a young clerk whose name, Chôkichi, uses the same first character, to pretend to be the intended recipient and falsely confess. The ruse works, but later a despairing Ohan leaves hurriedly. Chôemon runs out after her as far as the gate, but then returns to examine a letter she has left behind. He reads that Ohan has decided to kill herself, and he vows to join her in death. Soon afterwards the lovers drown themselves in the Katsura River.
The play title is written in the tricolor banner at the top right. When translated as "Union by the weir in the Katsura River," the title would refer to the final "union" — the lovers' suicide. Yoshitaki has depicted Ohan holding the farewell letter, which she will soon leave for Chôemon and then speed away to the Katsuragawa. She wears ornamental hairpins with tassles (called bira-bira kanzashi, or "fluttering hairpins": びらびら簪). The decorative cloud forms in the background are rendered as shibori (shaped-resist dyed: 絞り) textiles called kanoko ("fawn spots": 鹿の子).
This print was one of several similar compositions featuring actor portraits inside roundels with libretti pictured above, published circa late 1850s to 1863 by Honya Seishichi and designed by three artists — Yoshitaki, Enjaku, and Hironobu. The publisher's double "Honsei" seals (with the round red seal hand-stamped — see detail at right) may indicate that this design was considered a special edition. The use of metallic pigment and the exceptionally clear woodgrain in the blue background of the roundel confirm that this is a very early, deluxe impression. Moreover, our impression has a very wide intact left margin. Yoshitaki designed very few ôban-size prints, so that alone makes this work a rarity. In our experience, this design, one of Yoshitaki's best, is quite scarce. It is not included in the two primary Japanese institutional collections (the Ikeda Bunko Library, Osaka, and the Waseda Universty Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum, Tokyo), nor in several of the largest Western public collections with Osaka prints.
References: KNP-7, p. 85
Note: There is a late impression (arcUP8121) held by the Art Research Center of Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto with the roundel part of the design cut out from the original sheet and pasted on a different sheet of paper.