The text of Keisei ômonguchi (Courtesans at the great gate of the pleasure quarter: 契情廓大門 also written as けいせい廓大門) has apparently not survived, but it seems to be an adaptation of Ômonguchi yoroi kasane (written by Namiki Sôsuke in 12/1743, which premiered at the Ônishi Theater in Osaka). The drama features a complicated saga in which Shôkurô plots against Shinkurô, the murderer of his father, and wherein some of the characters take on disguises and false identities during the intrigues fueling the plot twists.
Onoe Tamizô II (1799-1886; 二代目尾上多見蔵), the son of a theater hairdresser, was a skillful dancer and versatile actor. He had a long and successful career. When he was barely 20 years of age, Tamizô began an apprenticeship with Onoe Kikugorô III (1784-1849; 三代目 尾上菊五郎) in Edo for three years, then returned to Osaka in 1823. (He had several sojourns in Edo thereafter.) In Osaka he was championed by a coterie of artists in Osaka in the mid 1820s, led by Gatôken (Toryûken) Shunshi, who specialized in depicting him in many performances. Early on he worked mostly the middle theaters in Osaka, but by 1833, he was also appearing in the larger theaters, such as the Kado and Naka. Tamizô tended to be a flamboyant showman and was short, overweight, and reputedly illiterate. (His weight problem is evident in portraits issued later in his career, as in the left sheet of the diptych being offered here.) Nevertheless, Tamizô was a notable actor on the Osaka stage for more than 60 years.
Arashi Kichisaburô III (1810-1864 三代目嵐吉三郎) performed both in Kamigata and in Edo, achieving success in both theatrical regional styles. The son of Arashi Izaburô I and grandson of Arashi Kichisaburô I, he ascended to the Kichisaburô name in 1821 after his uncle, Arashi Kichisaburô II took the name Arashi Kitsusaburô I. He honed his skills under the tutelege of one of the leading actors of the period, Arashi Rikan II. Kichisaburô III's talent enabled him to take on a wide range of male and female roles, although he was best known as a katakiyaku (actor in villain roles: 敵役), as was the case in the play Keisei ômonguchi, the subject of Yoshitaki's diptych.
Tamizô II holds an enormous teppô (gun or musket: 鐵砲), a term, by the way, that was also slang for a low-ranking prostitute or for a cheap brothel. Guns were not often depicted in ukiyo-e. Firearms in the form of matchlocks (ignited by a match), called tanegashima, were introduced into Japan by the Portuguese in 1543, and by 1560, guns were being used in large samurai battles. Firearms dramatically changed the nature of war, as unskilled, non-samurai fighters could be deployed en masse. In 1575, at Nagashino, 3,000 of Lord Oda Nobunaga's (1534-82) conscripted peasants hid with muskets behind wooden posts and devastated the enemy's cavalry charge. Later, however, on August 29, 1588, Nobunaga's successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536/37-1598 豊臣秀吉), banned possession of swords and firearms by the non-samurai classes, in effect, a civilian disarmament edict. After Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616; 徳川家康) officially established the Tokugawa shogunate (or Tokugawa bakufu 徳川幕府) in 1603, and especially after the siege of Osaka Castle in 1614-15, firearms served a limited military purpose during roughly 250 years of relative peace in Japan. During all this time, the firearm was never viewed by the Japanese as the equal of the katana (sword: 刀), whose manufacture, purpose, and aesthetics were emblematic of the aristocratic samurai class. Firearms were thought to be undignified, lacking the grace and honor associated with swords in combat. It is perhaps for this reason that the vast majority of samurai prints with weapons focus on the katana.
This composition is extraordinary for its flamboyant handling of a heavy rainstorm and signs of the supernatural. Shinkurô and Shôkurô, dressed in eye-catching robes, confront one another as orange shinka (spirit flames: 神火, symbolic of a supernatural presence) and dark, ominous clouds swirl behind them. The water spouts also signify otherworldly spirits. Unquestionably, this design should be counted among the best of Yoshitaki's works, as well as an important example of late-period Osaka printmaking.
We have so far located only one other impression of this marvelous and rare diptych (in the Art Research Center of Ritsumeikan University, Acc #arcUP3382-3383).
For another design by Yoshitaki for this same performance, see YST18.
References: KNP-7, p. 96; IKB-I, p. 109, no. 2-549