The original dramatization of the tale of Asaojirô 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 Shô utsushi 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 Shô utsushi Asagao nikki.
The present design by Sadanobu, 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"), 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 story is set in motion when Asojirô meets Akizuki Miyuki along the Uji River, a popular site for viewing and hunting fireflies during the evening cool of the summer months. They quickly fall in love, and he writes her a poem on a fan about a morning glory (asagao). Later, when they must part, she returns the fan as a keepsake. Asojirô then takes a new name, Komazawa Jirozaemon, after he is adopted by a wealthy family serving the same daimyô (lit., "great name": 大名) as the lord of Miyuki's family. Confusion ensues when he, as Jirozaemon, asks Miyuki's father for her hand in marriage. Mistakenly thinking her father will force her to marry a "stranger," Miyuki falls into despair and runs away.
Months pass and Miyuki, now a beggar blind from tears and grief, barely survives by playing the koto. Fondly remembering the poem, she calls herself Asagao. Asojirô coincidentally stops by an inn and finds the fan poem he wrote for Miyuki. When he learns that it belongs to "Asagao," he realizes she must be Miyuki. When Asojirô departs on his lord's urgent business, he leaves Miyuki some money, medicine to restore her sight, and the keepsake fan upon which he has added his explanation for changing his name. After Miyuki learns the full story, she rushes after him, but there is a terrible storm and she is unable to overtake her lover. Having lost Asojirô a second time, she is about to drown herself when she is stopped by one of her father’s retainers who has been continuously searching for her. She finally takes the medicine, whereupon her sight and former beauty are restored.
The series title, Kyôfuku tôsei kurabe ("A Comparison of Contemporary Mirror Covers": 鏡覆当世競), is inscribed below the roundel or mirror; it appears on at least three other prints from the set for performances spanning 8/1840 to 9/1841. For another example, see SDN17.
The portrayal of actors within roundels or kagami (mirrors: 鑑 or 鏡) was a common pictorial device in yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者絵). A fondness for such designs also seems to have been prompted, in part, by the importation of Western scopic instruments. As a result, the Japanese developed a fascination with telescopic views of people, landscapes, and architecture.
References: HSH, no. 97; OSP, no. 197