Suda no haru geiko katagi (A geisha's temperament and her client: 隅田春妓客性) was written by Namiki Gohei I (1747-1808) and premiered in Edo, 1/1796. It was based on an actual murder in Osaka in 1689 when a man named Yoshibei killed a clerk named Chôkichi. In the play, Yoshibei is an otokodate (lit., "standing man" or chivalrous commoner: 男伊達 or 男作, a street fighter often mythologized as a hero to the downtrodden in Edo-period urban Japan). He has sworn to protect a Chiba samurai named Kingorû and his young wife Kosan, daughter of Mishima Hayato. Yoshibei is a volatile sort who has taken to wearing a purple zukin (head cloth: 頭巾) as a reminder to control his temper. A precious poem card belonging to the Hayoto clan has been stolen and Yoshibei searches for it in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, where Kosan has indentured herself as a geisha. Yoshibei decides to ransom her for Kingorû and so his wife, Okun, asks her brother Chôkichi, a rice broker, for the money. When Chôkichi is assaulted by a robber along the Ô River, Yoshibei chases the thief away. It is very dark and Yoshibei and Chôkichi do not recognize one another. Yoshibei then asks to borrow the money Chôkichi is carrying, not realizing it was intended for him to pay off Kosan's ransom. When Chôkichi refuses, the enraged Yoshibei kills him, using the zukin in an ironic (and literal) twist of purpose.
Outside the theater, Yoshibei's zukin became fashionable and was known as a sojûrô zukin after the actor Sawamura Sojûrô I (1685-1756), who was the first to play the role of Yoshibei in an earlier kabuki version of the story. The manner of shaving Yoshibei's head also became a kata (conventional forms in kabuki: 型), called a yakko atama (footman's head). Yet other kata associated with this role are the emblems on the robes: herons (symbolizing innocence) or crows (bad luck), motifs that might be generally associated with the plight of otokodate coming to the rescue of commoners, but also, in this case, with the unfortunate Chôkichi. The crows on the actor Daigorô's robe in our impression are especially eye-catching and expressive of the tragedy that involves Yoshibei.
The intensity of colors in this pre-Meiji-period work, particularly the red, anticipates imported aniline dyes that saw regular use in Japanese printmaking by the mid to late 1860s, when they were considered kakushin no iro (colors of progress: 革新の色) rather than gaudy assaults on one's visual sense (an assessment especially common among early writers on ukiyo-e). The surface of this print is variegated and complex, with strong woodgrain showing through, particularly on the right side, and lines from the baren (printer's rubbing pad: 馬楝) at the upper left. The slanting rain on the kimono adds a dynamic touch to this dramatic portrait of a solitary actor.
References: NKE, p. 614