A familiar ritual in kabuki is the giving of the kôjô (first words or introduction: 口上). This prologue takes the form of a kabuki actor's long speech intended as a formalized expression of gratitude to the audience. The delivery of kôjô was also used to announce the plays, dances, and performers for the program, and sometimes served as opportunities for advertising products, events, organizations, and so on. Occasionally ukiyo-e prints included the inscription Habakari nagara kôjô (乍憚口上), meaning something like, "I apologize for this introduction" or "With deference, an introduction." Printmakers occasionally included inscriptions of the speeches in their designs while typically depicting the actors bowing before their fans.
Hirosada's designs may represent a set rather than a triptych, as the actors did not give their speeches on stage at the same time. They are shown in conventional poses, bowing deferentially to the audience. The figures at the top of each sheet are avid theater fans, members of the large and very influential Sakura-ren fan club (their distinctive hats are each emblazoned with the character for "flower," hana 花). These kabuki fans hold hyôshigi (lit., "rhythm wood"; 拍子木) or wooden clappers of the sort that were also used by kabuki stage assistants to signal critical moments during the production and performances, including the opening and closing of the curtain. As it was customary for certain fan clubs to support kabuki in general (as opposed to individual actors), members would dress up and perform chants and rhythmic clapping, both on stage and from their seats, during the course of a long day of actors' speeches and theatrical performances. The ritual of the kôjô and the interdependency of actors, fans, and theater management is well illustrated in Hirosada's portrayals of Nakayama Nanshi II, Nakamura Utaemon IV, and Nakamura Tamashichi I greeting their fans.
The long inscription on the right sheet includes a song composed by Jirô that expresses wishes for the prosperity of the Naka Theater. The poem on the middle sheet, signed by "Jochiku," speaks of cherry blossoms under moonlight along the Sakura (Cherry) River (Hana ni kite / tsuki ni modoru ya / Sakuragawa). The poem on the left sheet, signed "Kaijaku," mentions the first flowers of spring (plum) and suggests a comparison between the attractiveness of the sparrow, an allusion to the young and promising actor Namamura Tamashichi I, whose acting clan, the Nakamura, used a sparrow as one of their crests (Sakigakeru / ume ni haya kuru / suzume kana).
It would seem that finding a complete set of 3 prints, as we are offering here, is a challenge. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has only the middle sheet (Acc #11.35646), and neither of the major Japanese collections at Ikeda Bunko Library or Waseda University can boast of a complete grouping (see below). The Osaka print specialist Hendrick Lühl does have a complete set (see SDK below).
References: IKBYS-IV, no. 234 (R, C only); WAS-6, no. 183 (C only); SDK, no. 166