One of the best known plays featuring the role of Kumagai is Ichinotani futaba gunki (Battle chronicle of two young leaves at Ichinotani: 一谷嫩軍記), originally written for Bunraku (puppet theater: 文楽) and staged at the Toyotake no Shibai, Osaka in 12/1775. This jidaimono ("period piece" or history play: 時代物) is a fanciful adaptation based on the tales of the Genpei wars (1156-1185), the pivotal struggle between the Minamoto (Genji) and Taira (Heike) clans. Kumagai no Jirô Naozane (熊谷次郎直実 1141-1208), one of kabuki's most celebrated roles, was a general serving under the legendary Minamoto no Yoshitsune (源義経 1159-89) who had to face in battle a youth of only 15 named Taira no Atsumori (平敦盛 1169–1184), son of a general. As it happened, Kumagai owed a debt of gratitude to Atsumori's mother, for she had saved Kumagai and his wife from execution 17 years earlier. Having no other way to honor his debt, Kumagai substitutes and sacrifices his son for Atsumori. This shocking turn of events only delays the inevitable, however, and finally Kumagai must slay Atsumori. Distraught at the loss of his son and his failure to save Atsumori, Kumagai renounces his allegiance to the Minamoto and takes the vows of a Buddhist priest.
Another well-known Kumagai-mono is the play Suma no miyako Genpei Tsutsuji (Azaleas of the Minamoto and Taira clans in the capital at Suma: 須磨都源平躑躅), which premiered as a ningyô jôruri (puppet play: 人形淨瑠璃) at the Takemoto Theater, Osaka in 1730; kabuki staged its first version in 1763. So far, however, a performance of this play cannot be matched with Kunimasu's portrait of Ebizô V as Kumagai.
Ichikawa Ebizô V (1791-1859), who earlier (1799 - 3/1832) had acted as Ichikawa Danjûrô VII, performed in Osaka many times, including during the years 1843-1850 and 1853-1858.
Although the role has been confidently identified as Kumagai Jirô Naozane, there is no confirmed kabuki performance or theater for this design. Suggested dates range from circa 1849 to 1853. The Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum of Waseda University assigns a date of c. 1853 and the play Ichinotani futaba gunki, which they describe as mitate (analogue picture: 見立) or imaginary performance, that is, a production that cannot be verified by surviving kabuki records. We have followed this description provisionally in our description.
The word "spectacular" is much overused in descriptions of ukiyo-e, but in this instance it is appropriate, where the spectacle of kabuki color, pattern, and form is captured in a dramatic mie ("display" or climactic close-up: 見得). Very few ôban-format prints, whether from Kamigata or Edo, equal this rarely available Kunimasu okubi-e (lit., "large head" or close-up bust portraits: 大首絵) in its eye-catching deluxe production values. The vividly ornate robe with fire-breathing dragons, profuse application of faux-gold (copper-rich brass), intricate embossing, and sophisticated burnishing make this a standout and much sought-after gem from the Osaka school. Combine all this with Kunimasu's stunningly dramatic and emotional nigao (likeness: 似顔) of the actor Ebizô V, and you have one of the true masterpieces in Osaka printmaking. Not to be missed!
References: WAS-VI, no. 319 (inv #016-0806); OSP, no. 210 (Haber impression, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; accession #2011.144); NKE, p. 206