The play Kokusenya gassen ("Battles of Coxinga [Kokusenya]"), written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1724), has long been considered a bunraku (puppet theater: 文楽) masterpiece. First staged in 1715, it remains unsurpassed as the most successful play in the history of bunraku. Kabuki also produced many adaptations.
The hero Watônai Sankan (和藤内三官), 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, younger sister of the Chinese emperor murdered by the Tartars, where he fights to fulfill his father's promise to restore the Ming dynasty and place Sendan on the throne.
In the theatrical adaptation, Watônai 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 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).
The play's most famous scene is called beni nagashi shishigajô ("the red signal inside the castle") in which Kinshôjô stabs herself and, in place of the red powder, lets her blood flow into the conduit. Her death frees Kanki to fight the Tartars. Upon seeing the "red signal," Watônai bursts into the Lion Castle to confront Kanki, but soon the two become allies and Watônai is given the name Kokusenya, Lord of Enpei.
The signature, Tôto Yoshifuji ga (東都芳藤画), translates as "Drawn by Yoshifuji of the Eastern Capital." The artist Utagawa Ichiôsai [Ippôsai] Yoshifuji (歌川一鵬齋芳藤 1828–1887) was an Edo-based printmaker who happened, in this instance, to design a print for the Osaka market. A skilled pupil of the Edo master Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳 1798–1861), Yoshifuji was known mostly for musha-e (warrior or military prints: 武者絵), Yokohama-e (prints depicting Yokohama), book illustrations (including children's books), and omocha-e (toy prints: 玩具絵) — so many, in fact, that he was nicknamed "Omocha-e no Yoshifuji."
The scene in Yoshifuji's diptych is the one in which Yomogiu (Watônai's mother and Kinshôjô's step-mother) intercedes to save Kinshôjô from Kanki.
The setting is rendered in a rather spectacular style. Spanning the width of the room is a huge, eight-panel, painted byôbu (floor or folding screen: 屏風) depicting a three-toed Japanese dragon (one might expect a five-toed Chinese dragon in such a foreign locale). The costumes could hardly be more elaborate and colorful, with all other details (hanging lamp, painted decorations on the sliding doors and back wall) drawn in a manner evoking the splendor of a Chinese castle residence.
This is the first time we have offered a print by Yoshifuji, made doubly interesting by the fact that he was an Edo artist who designed this chûban diptych for the Osaka market. A rare print!
References: IKBYS-III, no. 491 (right sheet only); SDK, no. 316