Meiboku Sendai hagi (Sandalwood and bush clover of Sendai: 伽羅先代萩) dramatized the intriques over succession within the Date clan of Sendai during the third quarter of the seventeenth century. It was performed in an alternate sekai ("world" or theatrical setting: 世界), set back in time during the Ônin War (Ônin no Ran, 1467-1477: 応仁の乱) under the Ashikaga shogunate of the fifteenth century (Ashikaga thus becomes a theatrical substitute for the Date clan name). It is a classic play, so popular that during the Edo period it had at least one performance nearly every year after its premiere in 1777. The fictionalized central story involved Lord Ashikaga Yorikane's forays into the pleasure quarter and his murder of the courtesan Takao (高尾). This episode is an amplification of an actual incident in which the twenty-one-year-old clan leader Date Tsunamune became the lover of the Yoshiwara courtesan Takao, causing a scandal that led to his downfall. Another story line involves Nikki Danjô (Yorikane's evil nephew), the orchestrator of a conspiracy to overthrow Yorikane. The intrigue fails, however, and Nikki is slain.
The series title, Chûkô bûyuden (Tales of courage, loyalty, and filial piety: 忠孝武勇伝), is inscribed in the red and white carotuche at the upper left. It is one of several similar titles that Hirosada used on prints in the wake of the Tenpô kaikaku (Tenpô reforms: 天保改革) that had banned the publication of actor prints from 1842-1847. These print or series labels amounted to bit of transparent camouflage — no one, including government censors, was fooled into thinking that these images were anything but actor prints; still, the gesture helped satisfy the letter of the law. Note, too, that the actor's name is not given on the print, a small price to pay to skirt penalties, as ukiyo-e patrons knew the physiognomies of the actors and were intimately familiar with current stage productions.
This is the left-hand sheet of a diptych, with the right sheet depicting Sawamura Kitô I as Takao. This impression is finely printed, with a standout design element of sparrows (suzume: 雀) and bamboo (take: 竹) on Yorikane's blue robe. Always fond of literary and visual puns, the Japanese would also get the connection between the sparrows and Yorikane, as the term suzume was street slang for a habitué of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter in Edo.
References: IKBYS-IV, no. 83; NKE, p. 396