Suma no miyako Genpei tsutsuji (Azaleas of the Minamoto and Taira clans in the capital at Suma: 須磨都源平躑躅) premiered as a ningyô jôruri (puppet play: 淨瑠璃) at the Takemoto Theater, Osaka in 1730. Kabuki staged its first version in 1763. The dramatization was based on the Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike clan: 平家物語) and Genpei seisuiki (Story of the rise and fall of the Heike and Genji during the Genpei wars) — chronicles about the pivotal struggle (1156-1185) between the Minamoto (Genji) and Taira (Heike) clans ending at the battle of Dannoura in western Honshû.
The play serves as a prelude to the most famous individual confrontation in samurai legend — the slaying at Ichinotani of the fifteen-year-old Atsumori, son of a Taira general, by the Minamoto general Kumagai no Naozane, serving Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-89). As it happens, 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 own 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 monk.
In 1832 a production of the play included the Gojôbashi no ba ("Gojô Bridge scene"), newly written for the revival. The episode was, in part, an parody of the celebrated encounter on Kyoto’s Gojô Bridge between the young Minamoto general Yoshitsune (Ushiwakamaru) and the warrior priest Benkei. In the Gojôbashi no ba, Atsumori disguises himself as a woman named Kohagi and takes refuge with the fan-seller Kazusa and his daughter Katsurako. As Atsumori is about to be captured by the Minamoto, Kumagai happens to visit the shop and has Kazusa sacrifice Katsurako to honor his debt by protecting Atsumori. He then presents her head in place of Atsumori’s to deflect his fellow Minamoto from their mission. Later, as Atsumori prays for Katsurako’s soul at the Gojô Bridge, Kumagai confronts him and arranges to meet for battle at Ichinotani.
Kohagi (the disguised Mukan no Tayû Atsumori) is depicted within a roundel or mirror — a popular design motif in ukiyo-e printmaking since the late eighteenth century. Roundel portraits were understood to be both reflections of actors in mirrors and close-ups of mie (dramatic poses: 見得) on the stage. The floral elements placed behind the roundel evokes tenjômaku (天井幕) or "ceiling curtains," portraits inside medallions with floral backgrounds on cloth that were given as gifts to actors. Moreover, most of these roundel portraits depicted actors while in performance, as though "telescoping" or zooming in on the actor's mie, suggesting some influence from imported Western scopic devices.
There are five known designs from Hokuei's series Ryukô kagami no ooi (Fashionable mirror covers: 流行鏡の覆), one from the tenth month of 1834, and four from the tenth and eleventh months of 1835. The elite block carver Kumazô is named on all five designs, while the printer Hide is credited on all but the earliest print in the series.
For the companion sheet from this series for the same play, see HKE74.
Other impressions are held by such important collections as the Ikeda Bunko Library, Osaka (inv H245); Waseda University (Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum, Tokyo, inv 016-0788); Victoria & Albert Museum (inv E5060-1886), and the Art & History Museum, Brussels (Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Bruxelles, no. JP.07033).
References: WAS-IV: no. 554; IKBYS-II, no. 370; IKB-I, no. 2-443; KNP-VI, p. 30; NKE, p. 622