Hakuen II was the temporary acting name of the Edo superstar Ichikawa Danjûrô VII (1791-1859), who performed briefly in Osaka after fires had destroyed all three theaters in Edo in 3/1829. His appearance in Osaka caused quite a sensation, and fans filled the theaters to watch him perform.
Hiragana seisuiki ("Simple chronicle of the rise and fall of the Heike and Genji": ひらかな盛衰記) was based on the medieval saga Genpei seisuiki "“History of the Rise and Fall of the Genji and Heike": 源平盛衰記), a tale of the wars between the Heike (Taira) and Genji (Minamoto) clans in 1184. The warrior Higuchi Jirô Kanemitsu, in disguise as the boatman Matsuemon, seeks revenge against the Genji general Minamoto no Yoshitsune who has slain Higuchi's lord, the Heike general Kiso Yoshinaka. Matsuemon's wife, Oyoshi, cares for a young boy she believes to be their son Tsuchimatsu, who is actually Yoshinaka's son, Komawaka (the children were mixed up in an earlier melee during an attempt to assassinate Komawaka, when Tsuchimatsu was killed in his place). Oyoshi's father, Gonshirô, has instructed Matsuemon in the secret art of rowing called sakaro (backwards rowing), used to position ships to great advantage during battle. Yoshitsune's allies, the Kajiwara, offer Matsuemon command of Yoshitsune's ship in exchange for teaching them sakaro, which he sees as a perfect opportunity for revenge. The Kajiwara, however, know of his intentions and send warriors to take Matsuemon prisoner. Although Matsuemon (i.e., now revealed as Higuchi Jirô) fights off the first wave of attackers in spectacular fashion, he is eventually persuaded to surrender.
In this scene, as he leans against his oar, Matsuemon is about to confront the Genji troops. He will climb the Matsu no sakaro ("backwards-rowing pine") to observe the Kajiwara marching toward him. A rough bay can be see in the background, providing an emotional complement to Matsuemon's fierce demeanor.
The actor Ichikawa Hakuen II is none other than the superstar actor Ichikawa Danjurô VII from Edo. The two kanji characters at the top of the yellow cartouche read "Edo" (江戸), proudly identifying Hakuen's prime acting territory.
This is a very early design by Hokuei, signed Shunkôsai monjin Shunkô ga ("Shunkô, pupil of Shunkôsai"; the last name refers to Hokushû, Hokuei's teacher). It was common practice among print artists in the Kamigata region to indicate their status as pupils in their earliest published solo works. The print retains a large margin at the top of the design.
References:WAS I-5, no. 339; KNP-6, p. 214; IKB-I, p. 97; KAM, p. 95; NKE, p. 167