The original dramatization of the tale of Asojirô 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.
Hokuei's design is a portrayal of the initial encounter between Asojirô and Miyuki on the pleasure boats. Asojirô assists Miyuki as she lifts a foot while preparing to return to her boat, whose prow can be seen at the upper right.
The actor Ichizô relocated to Edo in 1829 and returned to Kamigata in the spring of 1834, first performing in Nagoya. Gakujûrô was in Kamigata from 11/1818 until his death in 11/1835, just 7 months after a production at the Seijuin no Shibai, a shrine-grounds theater in Nagoya. Although unconfirmed, this may be a rare design commemorating a Nagoya staging.
This is a very rare design. We know of only two unrecorded impressions, the one we're offering here and another in a private collection. We can find no other copies in public museums or institutional collections around the world, or in the standard literature on Osaka prints.
References: NKE, p. 603