Natsu matsuri Naniwa kagami (Mirror [Pattern] of the Osaka summer festival: 夏祭浪花鑑) was originally a nine-act sewamono (domestic or everyday drama: 世話物) staged for ningyô jôruri (puppet theater: 人形淨瑠璃) in 1745. Danshichi, a fishmonger and otokodate ("upright man" or chivalrous commoner: 男伊達 or 男作) was imprisoned for wounding a retainer of Ôshima Sagaemon (an enemy of Danshichi's ally, Tamashima Hyôdayû). A popular and well-established theatrical role type, the otokodate was a defender of the weak and oppressed.
Danshichi is paroled on the condition that he foreswear violence, so any breach of this agreement, however minor, will land him back in prison. Immediately after his release, he stops at the home of his friend Tsuribune no Sabu to wash and change clothes before seeing his wife. While there, Danshichi is attacked by the samurai Issun Tokubei who is allied with an enemy of the Tamashima clan. Sabu intercedes to prevent Danshichi's risking a return to prison by seizing a folding screen and holding it up between the two adversaries. Before the fight is resolved, Danshichi's wife, Okaji, arrives and is upset to discover that her husband, even before reaching home to rejoin his family, has fallen prey to violence again. Not long after, in a reversal of alliance, Tokubei befriends Danshichi and they pledge to protect the Tamashima clan. Of all the Danshichi mono (plays about Danshichi: 團七物), Natsu matsuri would prove to be the most popular, with performances spanning more than 250 years, continuing unabated today. By the end of the first quarter of the 19th century, after a change in standardized forms or interpretation (kata: 型), Danshichi also became emblematic of the boldly tattooed otokodate, giving impetus to some of the most visually compelling images in actor prints.
Hakuen II was the temporary acting name of the Edo superstar Ichikawa Danjûrô VII (1791-1859), who performed briefly in Osaka after fires destroyed all three theaters in Edo in 3/1829. His appearance in Osaka was quite a sensation, and fans filled the theaters to watch him perform.
This is one of Hokuei's earliest designs, which still carries his "student" signature, Shunkôsai monjin Shunkô ga (Drawn by Shunkô, pupil of Shunkôsai: 春好斎門人春江画). "Shunkôsai" refers to Hokuei's teacher, Shunkôsai Hokushû (note that the artists used different characters for "kô": 好 versus 江).
The inscriptions and semiotics of this print are fascinating. Hakuen wears a blue and white robe patterned with rebus symbols that read kamawanu ("It doesn't matter"): sickles (kama), circles (wa), and hiragana characters for nu. This was a popular and mildly irreverant expression during the Edo period, and a common textile design pattern that was also closely associated with Ichikawa Danjûrô VII. The rebus also appeared occasionally on the costumes of other kabuki actors, for example, in the role of Soga no Gorô from the aragoto-style ("rough stuff": 荒事) dance play Kongen kusazuribiki (Origin of the armor pulling) from 1/1814. The motif was also used in hair accessories, towels, and tableware. The noren (lit., "woven blind" or curtain: 暖簾) sports the mimasu mon (triple rice-measuring boxes: 三舛 crest of the Ichikawa acting lineage), and Hakuen's kômori (bat) personal mon. The character for Shô or toko (barber, Danshichi's occupation) is visible on the window, while the signboard reads Ushi no go-gatsu kichiji Naka no Shibai zamoto Ichikawa Masujiro Hiragana seisuiki Natsu matsuri Naiwa kagami Sumiyoshi dan Danshichi Kurobei Ichikawa Hakuen oatari oatari oatari oatari: Fifth month of the Ox Year (5/1829) the theater manager Ichikawa Masujiro's [production of the plays] Simple chronicle of the rise and fall of the Heike and Genji, and Mirror of the Osaka summer festival, the Sumiyoshi scene, Ichikawa Hakuen as Danshichi Kurobei — super huge big hits!
Another impression is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (#11.35181).
References: IKB-I, 2-413; KNP-VI, p. 214; KAM, p. 95 (231); NKE, p. 462