The play, which first debuted as a puppet play in 1708 and was adapted to the kabuki stage in 1719, begins outside the studio of painter Tosa Mitsuoki, where a painted tiger has come to life and begun terrorizing the local farmers; the farmers are now pursuing it and hoping to destroy it. Mitsuoki looks at the tiger and asserts that it's not his painting style, but rather that of Kanô Motonobu, another painter known for his incredibly lifelike paintings.
A former student of Mitsuoki's, Matahei, modeled on the historical Iwasa Matabei, is also present. Expelled from the Tosa school by Mitsuoki because of his stutter, Matahei is also not trusted by Mitsuoki to take care of the tiger. Instead, Mitsuoki's disciple Shinnosuke is given the task of destroying the tiger by painting it out, and is rewarded for his success by being granted the use of the Tosa name. Frustrated and offended, Matahei decides to commit suicide, and begins painting a memorial self-portrait of himself on a stone lantern. The painting not only realistically resembles Matahei, however, but even shows through to the other side of the lantern, a sign of his artistic greatness and a product of his passion and intensity. Recognizing this, Mitsuoki grants Matahei the use of the Tosa name as well, reaccepting him into the school, and Matahei decides to live.
- Timon Screech, Obtaining Images, University of Hawaii Press (2012), 23-24.