Hikosan gongen chikai no sukedachi (A vow to serve with a sword at Mt. Hiko Shrine: 彦山権現誓助剣) is an example of an adauchi mono (revenge tale: 仇打ち物). It was written first for the puppet theater (bunraku: 文楽) and staged in 1786 at the Higashi no Shibai, Osaka. It was adapted for kabuki in 1788 at the Furuichi no Shibai in Ise, and finally at a major venue when it was produced at Naka no Shibai in 1790.
The main plot features Osono and Okiku, the daughters of Ichimisai, a fencing master assassinated by a wicked samurai named Kyôgoku no Takumi. Osono and Okiku vow to avenge their father's murder. Although Okiku is killed by Takumi, Osono continues with the vendetta. She disguises herself as a komusô (mendicant priest: 虚無僧), wearing a large sedge hat and carrying a shakuhachi (end-blown wooden flute: 尺八) — for this costume, see YSK18. Late in the drama, Osono and her husband Keyamura Rokusuke, a disciple of her father, exact their revenge against Takumi.
Osono is one of the more intriguing and challenging roles in the kabuki repertory, as she is both very accomplished in the martial arts and a charming, conventional housewife. The actor playing this role must alter his posture, movement, voice, and demeanor when expressing the opposing natures of a single stage character.
The 3/1825 production of plays at the Kado Theater was intended to be Utaemon's farewell to his fans, although the anticipated retirement was delayed for more than a decade (see the Ireki article). It was an ambitious program for Utaemon, who performed various roles in the plays Yoshitsune koshigoejô, Hikosan gongen chikai no sukedachi, Himekomatsu ne no hi no asobi, and Ichinotani futaba gunki.
In the scene depicted here, Rokusuke and Osono confront each other in the sort of fanciful manner that proves endlessly popular with kabuki audiences. Rokusuke "crosses swords" with Osono, he with a kiseru (smoking pipe: 烟管) and she with a shakuhachi (wooden flute: 尺八). The child caught in the middle of this is Osono's nephew, Yasamatsu. Osono will soon realize that Rokusuke is her betrothed (her father had promised her in marriage to Rokusuke, but she had not yet met him). It is at this crucial turn-of-events that Osono changes in personality, taking on a more feminine demeanor and revealing her identity. Rokusuke agrees to wed her and join in the vendetta.
The first four characters at the top right of the right-hand sheet read Isse ichidai (Once in a lifetime performance: 一世一代), a common expression found on yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者絵) to celebrate especially successful performances and stage productions. It was also used, as in this instance, to celebrate an actor's achievements over an entire career, given shortly before he retired (as announced, inaccurately, for this 3/1825 production).
References: IKBYS-I, no. 237; NKE, p. 165