Hokuei's subject, the Suikoden, was based on the fourteenth-century Chinese novel Tales of the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan), a rousing and bloody epic celebrating the exploits of a band of righteous outlaws led by Song Jiang, whose base of operations was an encampment by a marsh (the "water margin" of the title) on Mount Liang (Liangshan; Jap., Ryôsanpaku). Hokuei's four heroes are, right to left: (1) Kyûmonryû Shishin; Ch: Shi Jin), a powerful warrior whose exploits in defeating and then befriending a leader of a small band of thieves earns him an invitation to join the Ryôsanpaku gang; (2) Nyûunryû Kôsonshô (Ch: Gongsun Sheng), a Daoist priest and sorcerer whose magical powers (especially the conjuring of whirlwinds and clouds) ensures many victories for the outlaw gang; (3) Kosanjô Ichijôsei (Ch: Hu San), one of the few female heroes in the saga, skilled in the two-sword fighting technique (nitôryû) and feared for slaying many adversaries on the battlefield. Allying herself with the Shû clan against the Ryôsanpaku brigands, she fights valiantly but is captured, agrees to become the wife of one of the gang members she had earlier taken prisoner (Waikyakuko Ôei; Ch: Wang Ting), and eventually becomes a Ryôsanpaku hero; and (4) Rôrihakuchô Chôjun (Ch: Zhang Shun), a fish-market owner who had been extorting money from passengers on his brother's ferry. Possessing great strength and the ability to swim and remain underwater "for seven days and nights without difficulty," he joins the gang after winning a fight with, and then befriending, one of their more ill-tempered members. Late in the story he is killed during an assault against adversaries of the Ryôsanpaku rebels near a water gate near Kôshû castle.
Hokuei's tetraptych has long been considered a triumph of Osaka publishing. It is exceedingly difficult to find complete as here, and is featured in the groundbreaking book by Keyes and Mizushima, The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints, 1973, p. 146, where it is described as "one of the masterpieces of Osaka printmaking." This work was a deluxe production bearing special seals for the artist (Koshiji no ume and Fumoto no ume), the block cutters (Kumazô and Yashichi), and the printers (Toyosaburô and Tetsugorô).