The original dramatization Sekitori senryô nobori (The Rise of the 1,000 Ryô Wrestler: 関取千両幟) was written in nine acts by Chikamatsu Hanji and others for the ningyô jôruri (puppet theater: 人形淨瑠璃), premiering in 8/1767 at the Takemoto Theater, Osaka. The first kabuki performance in Osaka may have been in 8/1775 at the Kado Theater. Two patrons of rival wrestlers attempt to raise money to ransom a beautiful courtesan, Nishikigi of the Osakaya, so they wager on a match between their wrestlers. Tetsugadake Dazaemon, fearing he will lose, asks Iwagawa Jirokichi to throw the match in exchange for his help in raising the money for Iwagawa’s patron. As this would guarantee the rescue of Nishikigi, Iwagawa agrees. His wife Otowa learns of the plot, however, and cannot accept that her husband would ruin his reputation for his patron. She therefore raises the money in secret by the only means available — selling herself to a brothel. As the wrestling match is about to begin, Iwagawa is told that an anonymous source has provided the money. He is therefore free to compete unfettered, defeat his opponent, and capture his ranking. After his victory, he is shocked to learn that the donor was his Otowa.
This shini-e (death print: 死絵) is one of the most admired of Osaka designs, and much sought after. It is based on a sketch for a performance early in 1836 that was turned into a shini-e by adding the various inscriptions. The block cutting and printing is especially fine, worthy of a memorial to an artist of Hokuei's stature.
The first two vertical lines of script on the far right read Kojin Hokuei byôga no makura ni fude no owari to seshi kono saiga o azusa ni agete isasaka kôge no hashi to sen (The late Hokuei painted this picture while on his sickbed. We offer this as a final farewell in memory of his work.).
The middle verse on the right is signed "Yoneta." It is a paean to Hokuei’s skill as a print designer and employs an image from nature, as if Hokuei's talent were immeasurable like a great mountain peak viewed from far below: Fudedake no / omokage miyuru / oboro kana (A brush of great height / whose countenance appears / through a moonlit haze).
The left-most poem on the right side is signed "Shiimoto-an." It employs the conventional metaphor of fast-melting spring snow as a symbol for a brief life. Although we do not know Hokuei’s date of birth, it would seem from this poem and his brief working period that Hokuei died unexpectedly before his time: Kieta towa / uso no yoonari / haru no yuki (It seems untrue / vanished forever / like spring snow!).
The poem on the far left is signed "Kanjaku," the haigô of the actor portrayed in the print, Utaemon IV, whose seal appears under his signature. The fish escaping from a fisherman's net (ami) represents Hokuei, whose skill in designing prints is likened to the strength of a fish escaping through fine netting (which also recalls the strength of the wrestler Iwagawa). The shirauo (ichthyology: Salanx microdan) is fished at the beginning of spring, so this is a second reference to Hokuei's unexpected death (in late 1836) and the publication of the print (possibly the beginning of 1837). A second interpretation is possible for the signifier ami, which refers to the Taoist belief that "Heaven casts a wide net" through which nothing passes (corresponding roughly to the western concept of "As you live, so shall you reap."). Thus, Hokuei’s worldly artistic contributions have earned him his rightful place in the afterworld (that is, the net will no longer be cast to ensnare him for his sins) and no further retribution will be exacted, for he has gained salvation through his art: Shirauo no / ami no me kuguru / chikara kana (With great power / the white fish passes through / the meshes of the finest net).
All told, this is a superb design with expressive poems mourning the passing of a much-admired artist.
References: WAS II-5, no. 529; KNP-6, p. 298; OK, no. 164; DSH, pp. 73-75; NKE, p. 566