What a spendid rat! The magician riding along here is not Nikki Danjo – the great kabuki villain who transforms into a rat in order to steal a valuable scroll – this chap is Shimidzu no Kwanja Yoshitaka. He was the son of Yoshinaka, who had sent him as a hostage to Yoritomo (the Shogun) during the Heike war.
The political intrigue of the twelfth century saw Yoshinaka betrayed, exiled and hunted down after the battle of Awazu. In an attempt to kill himself he became lost in the frozen marshes of Omi Province and was killed by a party of foot soldiers.
Shimidzu no Kwanja Yoshitaka attempted to avenge the betrayal of his father by killing the Shogun, but failed, and was beheaded. According to legend, the spirit of a friendly Yamabushi (mountain hermit) took the shape of a giant rat to help him in his enterprise, albeit ineffectively. The picture below is once again (for this series of posts) from Kunisada’s A Contest of Magic Scenes – one of his great last series from 1864. The influence is very clear… the smoke and the overall arrangement.
It is a popular image in ukiyo-e, Kuniyoshi illustrated the story in an 1845 series on the Sixty Provinces of Japan. The story is now more or less forgotten and survives really only in these prints.