The scene depicts an episode recorded in the Taiheiki [Chronical of the Great Peace] (1372) telling of the Nanbokucho Senso [Wars of the Southern and Northern Courts] (1334-1396) following attacks on the samurai government in 1333 by the forces of the Emperor Godaigo (1288 -1339) in order to restore Imperial rule in place of the Bakufu. After a number of changes of fortune the samurai government under the leadership of Ashikaga Takauji eventually drove the Emperor Godaigo into exile at Yoshino, South of the capital in Kyoto, to establish a government by the samurai class with a cadet branch Emperor seated in the North of Kyoto. The situation persisted through the 14th century and up to 1868, when Imperial rule was restored.
The scene depicts the emotional episode recorded factually in the Taiheiki. Kusunoki Masashige became faced with an overwhelmingly large force of Takauji’s army, and although being advised against direct confrontation, the Emperor Godaigo ordered Masashige to confront the enemy forces. Knowing that such a project would end in disaster he was nevertheless obliged to follow the Imperial command. At a place called Sakurai he ordered his son Masatsura to leave, much against the boy’s wishes, but so that he could grow to support the Imperial cause in the future. The screen shows Masashige holding a sceptre of office with his young son kneeling before him having received a written scroll on military strategy which he was urged to study in order to avenge his father’s encroaching death in battle.
In the battle which follows Godaigo’s forces were predictably defeated and Masashige, severely wounded, committed suicide on the field. A similar fate was later to befall another general in service to Godaigo, one Nitta no Yoshisada, who likewise committed suicide in a grandiose fashion upon his defeat in battle.
The Northern court becoming thus victorious, the Ashikaga family of shoguns ruled until the late 16th century, and samurai government continued under the Tokugawa family until the Imperial Restoration in 1868.
During the centuries of samurai rule Ashikaga Takauji was held to be a great hero. But after the Imperial Restoration, notwithstanding a descent from the ‘Northern Court’, it was decreed that the Emperor Meiji was a true descendant of Godaigo, and Kusunoki Masashige accordingly took the place of Takauji as the National Hero of united Japan.
An equestrian statue of Masashige was cast of bronze by Takamura Koun (1852-1934), Ishikawa Komei (1852–1913), and Goto Sadayuki (1850-1903), three of the great artists of the day. It stands today in the Gaien plaza of the Imperial Palace ground. His spirit is installed in the Minatogawa Jinja shrine in Kobe.
The maki-e scene on the front depicts the moment when Masashige ordered his son to leave before the oncoming conflict. The panel on the back of the screen likely depicts two episodes in the life of Masashige when he won once, but subsequently lost, battles at the castle of Akasaka (which no longer exists), against his opponent Takauji.
The episode became the subject of an emotional popular song entitled ‘Sakurai no Wakare’ (The Parting at Sakurai), and a number of colour prints were made depicting the scene shown on this screen and the battles at Akasaka Castle.