The original dramatization of the tale of Asajirô and Miyuki, based on a kôdan (storytelling lecture or oral narrative: 講談), was an unproduced script called Asagao ("Morning glory": 朝顔) written circa 1804-06 by Chikamatsu Tokusô (1751-1810). Later illustrated books and plays followed, including the kabuki play Shôutsushi asagao nikki (Recreating the true diary of morning glory: 生写朝顔日記) by Dekishima Sensuke in 1812, although that production was a failure. In 1832 Shôutsushi Asagao nikki was revised and turned into a puppet play, credited to Chikamatsu Tokusô under his posthumous name, Yamada no Kakashi, from which kabuki then adapted its version around 1850, first titled Eiri shôsetsu Asagao monogatari, and later again using the title Shôutsushi Asagao nikki.
The present design by Hokuei, also a recounting of the tale of Asojirô and Miyuki, was published for a play titled Keisei tsukushi no tsumagoto (A courtesan playing the Tsukushi koto: 傾城筑紫𤩍), first produced in 1814 as an eight-act adaptation of Tokusô's Asagao drama by Nagawa Harusuke at the Kado no Shibai, Osaka. The tsukushi of the title refers to the former province now called Kyûshû, and it also puns on tsukushi or monozukushi, a literary technique used in Edo-period drama to weave a catalog of related things into the dialog.
The play Shôutsushi asagao nikki features the love between Miyagi Asojirô and Akizuki Miyuki, daughter of a wealthy samurai, who first meet while enjoying an outing in pleasure boats on the Uji River, a popular location for hunting fireflies. They are immediately smitten with one another and exchange vows, but afterwards a misunderstanding leads Miyuki to believe that her father will force her to marry someone else. Unknown to her, the suitor is actually Asojirô using an alternate name. To keep her pledge to Asojirô, she runs away and assumes the name Asagao ("Morning Glory," a reminder of a poem Asojirô had written for her). After months pass, Miyuki loses her sight from endless grieving, barely supporting herself by playing the koto (a horizontal harp). Coincidentally, Asojirô then discovers her at an inn, but he cannot remain, as he must quickly depart on urgent business for his lord. He leaves medicine to treat her blindness, but it is only after her near suicide over separating once again from Asojirô that Miyuki takes the palliative and restores her sight.
Asojirô stands before a bridge spanning the Uji river as fireflies flit about him under a crepuscular sky. He holds a paper lantern (andon) inscribed with characters reading Tsûen, probably that of a local teahouse. Two hand-stamped seals appear below the signature: (Far LR corner) the block-cutter imprint of the celebrated Kasuke, which reads surimono han[gishi] Ka[suke] ("Kasuke, surimono woodblock master"); and nearer the signature, the publisher's seal, "Kawaji."
The poem was composed by the actor Rikan, who compares (unfavorably) his theatrical skills with the wonders of nature: Futsutsu kana / ware hazukashiki / hotaru kana (Fireflies! / I am ashamed / Like an ignorant rustic!).
The earliest surimono-style edition of this striking composition has the poem and block cutter seal but no publishers' seals. Variants exist with similarly colored as well as more darkly printed landscapes. A later commercial edition was issued by the publisher Kawaji that retains the poem and Kasuke's seal, as here. Still later examples have the publishers Honsei/Kawaji in a joint production that omit the poem but keep the Kasuke seal, and one with the seal for the publisher Iden but no Kasuke seal.
As is sometimes encountered in ukiyo-e, we can see, throughout the background, evidence of the pattern of rubbing the print from the back with the baren ("succession sheath," i.e., circular rubbing pad).
References: IKBYS-II: no. 285; IKB-I, no. 3-62; DSH, p. 60; NKE, p. 603