This image depicts the characters Sukeroku and Ikyû from the play “Sukeroku Yukari no Edo Zakura.” The drama is set in the center of Edo’s licensed red light district, Yoshiwara, and involves a courtesan and two of her clients: Ikyû and Sukeroku, the latter of whom she loves. Sukeroku made an oath eighteen years earlier to avenge his father’s murder, but his treasured sword, an heirloom of the Soga family, was stolen from him. He comes to Yoshiwara, where all classes of people meet, in hopes of finding it. He picks quarrels with all in order to make them draw their swords. Sukeroku believes Ikyû has the sword since he is the only person who refuses to fight. No matter what Sukeroku does, Ikyû never draws his sword, saying that it is too noble to be spoiled by a thief’s blood. Eventually, however, Ikyû does draw his sword, and it is indeed the stolen one.

The actor depicted as Sukeroku in this print was the ninth in line to hold the name Ichikawa Danjuro; he is widely credited with ensuring that Kabuki theater stayed vibrant and strong as Japan struggled with modernization and Westernization during the Meiji period (1868-1912). The print comes from a series entitled “The Best Eighteen Kabuki Plays of the Ichikawa Family (Kabuki Jûhachi-ban).”