Japanese publishers and artists were continuously producing designs in sets of various sizes for a wide array of subjects. One such theme was the jûnishi or "twelve branches," that is, the animals of the zodiac. Derived from ancient Chinese astronomy, cosmology, and divination, the jûnishi were especially popular during the Edo period, serving up appealing vehicles for the presentation and sale of ukiyo-e series and sets. Among these were mitate ("view and compare," or analogues), which offered opportunites for clever juxtapositions between the traditional meanings of the jûnishi and contemporary customs, fads, stories, plays, and persons.
Each diptych includes the series title and animal, the latter identified inside roundels with a Japanese character fashioned as shibori (a dappled or spotted tie-dye textile pattern). In Hirosada's set, the conceit was to link roles and plays with each animal. So, for example, in design no. 1 (Ne or rat), the zodiac sign is connected with Nikki Danjô in the play Meiboku Sendai hagi, who has supernatural powers and can disguise himself as a giant rat. The scroll is clenched between Tetsunosuke's (Nikki's) teeth as a rat would hold such an object; it is inscribed with a list of conspirators (Nikki is the ringleader of the plot) planning to overthrow Ashikaga no Yorikane (a theatrical substitute for the head of the Date clan). Likewise, in design no. 9 (Saru or monkey), the title of the play includes the word saramawashi (monkey trainer), referring to Yojirô.
The names of the actors were omitted from the designs as a precaution, the prints having been issued soon after the relaxation of the Tenpô Reforms (Tenpô kaikaku) enacted in Osaka in 7/1842. These edicts banned actor prints, virtually halting print production for five years. Publishers in Kamigata resumed production in early 1847 while still in fear of reprisals. When none were forthcoming, they expanded their printmaking efforts, but nevertheless relied on various — though rather transparent — tactics to forestall the ire of censors, such as incorporating didactic or moralizing titles, deleting actors' names, and relying almost exlcusively on the smaller, less ostentatious chûban-size format (in stark contrast to the ôban format that was dominant before the reforms).
Actors are identifiable by their physiognomies and verifiable by the roles they played. A summary in the order of the images above (right to left, top to bottom) is given here:
- Ne (rat): Nakamura Utaemon IV as [Matsugae] Tetsunosuke and Ichikawa Ebizô V as Saibara [Kageyu] in Meiboku Sendai hagi
- Ushi (ox): Mimasu Daigorô IV as Shôjo; Kataoka Gadô II as Umeomaru in Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (possibly mitate)
- Tora (tiger): Mimasu Daigorô IV as Soga Jûrô and Arashi Rikan III as Sogo Gorô in Keisei Soga Kamakura daiji
- Usagi (hare): Arashi Rikan III as Yamauba and Nakamura Tamashichi I as Kaidômaro (Kintarô) in Komachi Yamauba
- Tatsu (dragon): Nakamura Utaemon IV as Daizen and Nakayama Nanshi II as Yuki-hime in Gion sairei shinkoki
- Mi (Snake); Nakayama Nanshi II as Jinenjô Osan; Nakamura Gizaemon as Hebitsukai (snake charmer) Oichi; and Arashi Kanjûrô II as Yamagataya Gihei
- Uma (horse): Onoe Tamizô II as Kumagaiya Jirô and Arashi Rikaku II as Mukan no Tayû Atsumori in Suma no Miyako Genpei Tsutsuji
- Hitsuji (goat): Jitsukawa Enzaburô I as Ubuge no Kintarô and Kataoka Gadô II as Tamaya Shinbei in Azuma namari koi no Fukagawa
- Saru (monkey): Nakamura Utaemon IV as Yojirô, Nakamura Tomosa II as Tsurikaneya Gonbei, Ichikawa Shiyu I as Izutsuya Gorobei, and Nakayama Bungorô I as Wachikaiya Hachirôbei in Sarumawashi kadode no hitofushi
- Tori (cock): Kataoka Gadô II as Yodoya Tatsugorô and Nakamura Daikichi III as keisei Azuma in Keisei yanagi zakura
- Inu (dog): Nakamura Tomosa II as Isami Rikita, Nakamura Utaemon III as Nukasuke, and Arashi Rikan III as Shinno in Satomi hakkenden
- I (boar): Ichikawa Shikô II as Nitta Shirô and Jitsukawa Ensaburô as Jurô Sukenari in Keisei Soga Kamakura daijin
It is a distinct rarity to find a complete set of the deluxe edition preserved, as here, in very good condition. There was also a non-deluxe atozuri (later printing) edition without the metallics. We know of no institutional collections that can boast of having all the sheets, regardless of edition or condition.
References: IKBYS-IV, no. 328 (only 7 of the 12 diptychs); NPST, nos. 199-207 (only 9 of the 12 diptychs)