In the twelfth month of 1745, kabuki fans in Osaka flocked to the city's three ô-shibai (big or main theaters: 大芝居) located on adjacent blocks in the entertainment district along the Dôtonbori (Dôton Canal: 道頓堀). The Ônishi, Naka, and Kado theaters had plunged into a spirited competition, each assembling their best casts to perform a new nine-act play called Natsu matsuri Naniwa kagami (Mirror of the summer festival in Osaka: 夏祭浪花鑑). The sewamono ("everyday piece" or domestic drama: 世話物) had premiered in the seventh month as a puppet play (ningyô jôruri, 淨瑠璃 or bunraku, 文楽) at the Takemoto no Shibai, Osaka, and was first staged for kabuki during the eighth month by two rival theatres in Kyoto, the Miyako Mandayû no Shibai and Minamigawa no Shibai. Edo did not stage a production until the fifth month of 1747 at the Morita-za.
The main character was a hot tempered fishmonger and otokodate (lit., "upright man" or chivalrous commoner: 男伊達 or 男作) named Danshichi Kurobei. A popular and well-established role type, the otokodate was a defender of the weak and oppressed. Danshichi was imprisoned for wounding a retainer of Ôshima Sagaemon (an enemy of Danshichi's ally, Tamashima Hyôdayû). Danshichi is paroled on the condition that he foreswear violence, so any breach of this agreement, however minor, will land him back in prison. Near the end of the play, Danshichi and his father-in-law, Giheiji, confront each other in one of kabuki's most famous episodes, Nagamachi no ura no ba ("Back street scene in Nagamachi"). As their argument escalates over Danshichi's payment to ransom the courtesan Kotoura, sounds of revelry can be heard from an approaching Kozû Shrine Festival parade in Dôtonbori. During performances of this play, the boisterous music provides an incongruous carnivalesque accompaniment to the action in the gloomy backstreet. Danshichi draws his sword, accidentally cutting Giheiji, who screams, "Murderer!" Overcome with rage, Danshichi, his unknotted hair falling to his shoulders, strips down to a red loincloth, revealing his tattooed body. As he moves in on his prey, Danshichi performs various koroshi no mie (murderer's poses: 殺し見得) in counterpoint to Giheiji's displays of panic and supplication. Finally, while asking for forgiveness, Danshichi ends the old man's life with a thrust of his sword. Danshichi then washes splattered blood and Giheiji's muddy handprints from his body, using water from a nearby well. He escapes by mingling in the large crowd of festival celebrants.
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.
The striking background in Hokushû's design represents Danshichi's emblematic robe pattern — white-and-rust colored cross bars, called Danshichi-gôshi" (checkered Danshichi).
The verse, signed "Gisaku En," mentions the large sea bream in Danshichi's basket: "He specializes is giving you a good-tasting sea bream" (Meijin jiyasakaite aji tobi mi tokorono aru tai wa kore omae ichimai).
References: IKBYS-I, no. 149; KNP-6, p. 98