The five-act play Yamatogana Ariwara Keizu (Ariwara’s syllabic genealogy: 倭仮名在原系図) was written for the puppet theater (ningyô jôruri, 人形淨瑠璃 or Bunraku, 文楽), premiering in the twelfth lunar month of 1752 in Osaka at the Toyotake-za. It was adapted by kabuki in the first lunar month of 1753 at the Minamigawa no Shibai in Kyoto. The fourth act appears to be the sole surviving section and is commonly called Ranpei monogurui (Ranpei's madness: 蘭平物狂).
The complicated plot for Act IV involves an attempt to assassinate Lord Ariwara no Yukihira and multiple double identities. Formerly exiled to the island of Suma, Yukihira fell in love with the shiokumi (salt-scooping: 潮汲み or 汐汲み) girl Matsukaze ("Wind in the Pines: 松風). Now back in Kyoto, Yukihira sends his servant Ranpei to fetch her. Matsukaze has died, however, so Ranpei returns with a look-alike beauty named Oriku. When an enemy of Yukihira's escapes his confinement, Yukihira sends Ranpei's son Shigezô in pursuit. Ranpei's tries to substitute himself, but Yukihira refuses, citing his strange madness. In reality, however, Ranpei is pretending to be prone to madness as a subterfuge to get close to and kill Yukihira. Meanwhile, the reunion of "Matsukaze" (Oriku) and Yukihira goes poorly. At one point he asks her to play the koto (a fretted string instrument like a horizontal harp: 琴) and the music soothes him into dozing. Oriku brings in her husband Yomosaku (who gained access pretending to be Matsukaze's brother), who attempts to slay Yukihira, but the lord subdues him. Then Ranpei returns with his son, who has the severed head of the fugitive. After questioning, Yomosaku admits to seeking revenge because he is the son of a man slain by Yukihira. The lord gives him one chance to live, by having him fight a duel with Ranpei (who objects, of course, citing his "madness"). As it happens, what precipitates Ranpei's madness is any sword drawn from its scabbard. During the fight, the two combatants recognize each other's swords, indicating that they are brothers. They reunite and vow to kill Yukihira. Finally, Ranpei is defeated in his quest and is told that the fugitive decapitated by his son was actually his real brother, Yoshizumi, and that Yomosaku is not his brother but a warrior serving Yukihira. When Ranpei attempts suicide, he is stopped by Yomosaku, who persuades Ranpei to forsake his conspiracy and become a monk.
There are apparently no records in the kabuki annals identifying a performance for Ebijûrô I in this role at this time; thus, this print is typically considered a mitate-e (analogue picture: 見立絵), that is, in this instance, a design portraying an actor in a role and play not linked with a known performance.
On some non-deluxe impressions, one seal reads Yamaichi (山市), a name of an artisan who acted as both a publisher and a block carver. The seal at the bottom right on our deluxe impression (see small detail image) remains unidentified. At first glance, it resembles a date seal, but does not match any recorded in the standard literature. It was around this time that faux-censor seals appeared on quite a number of Osaka prints. Why this happened remains a mystery.
The poem, which mentions Ranpei's madness, reads Nama sui no kyô fuga kotoshi shitsu no naka (なま酔の狂ふかことし桎の中) and is signed Shinshô (新升), Ebijûrô’s haigô (poetry name: 俳号), with seals "Shin" and "Shô"
This is a fine early deluxe impression (jôzuri-e or "top-quality": 上摺絵) printed before the namizuri-e (standard or ordinary edition: 並摺絵).
IKBYS-I, no. 110 (deluxe); Museum Fine Arts, Boston, Acc #11.35349 (Sturgis Bigelow Collection)