Honchô nijûshikô (Twenty-four filial paragons of the empire: 本朝廿四孝) premiered for bunraku (puppet theater: 文楽, also called jôruri, puppet plays, 淨瑠璃) in 1766 at the Takemoto no Shibai, Osaka. The drama featured complex intrigues involving the Takeda and Uesugi (Nagao) clans after the fictional assassination of the shôgun Ashikaga Yoshiteru (足利 義輝, 1536-65) — the real Yoshiteru committed suicide after losing a battle to Miyoshi Yoshitsugu (三好 義継, 1549-73). The play focuses on a rivalry of the warriors Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen, whose fight at Kawanakajima is a well-known historical incident. Written by Chikamatsu Hanji and others, the plot was influenced by Shinshû kawanakajima kassen (Fight at Kawanakajima, Shinshû: 信州川中嶋合戦), written by Japan's great Edo-period playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (近松門左衛門 1653-1725). Honchô nijûshikô was a five-act play adaptation that interjected the assassination of the Ashikaga shôgun by a local warrior named Saitô Dôsan. The title Honchô nijûshikô was inspired by the traditional Chinese collection of 24 exemplars of filial duty (Ch: Èrshísì Xiào 二十四孝), written by Guo Jujing (郭居敬) during the Yuan dynasty (1260–1368), which were promulgated as part of the shogunate's support of Neo-Confucian philosophy.
Princess Yaegaki, daughter of the warrior Uesugi Kenshin of Echigo, is engaged to Takeda Katsuyori, son of Takeda Shingen of Kai. Their union was arranged through the intervention of the Ashikaga shôgun, although the families of Kenshin and Shingen were feuding. When the shôgun is assassinated, suspicion falls on both families. Katsuyori tries to find the murderer but fails and appears to die. Yaegaki is grief-stricken, but then discovers that Katsuyori is still alive, disguised as a cultivator of flowers. Her father Kenshin, however, also learns that Katsuyori is alive and sends an assassin to murder him.
Yaegaki tries to warn Katsuyori, but she cannot travel faster than the assassin nor cross frozen Suwa lake to reach Katsuyori. Desperate, she prays to a precious heirloom helmet, which the families are feuding over — it was given by Takeda Shingen to the Suwa Hosshô Shrine for safekeeping — while they are also attempting to root out the shôgun's assassin (Saitô Dôsan). The helmet is actually in Nagao's possession at the palace. If the families fail to catch the assassin, their respective heirs, Takeda Katsuyori and Nagao Kagekatsu, will be sacrificed. In the play's most famous scene, Yaegaki prays before the helmet for Katsuyori's safety, whereupon it miraculously loses almost all its weight, enabling her to carry it as though transfixed. When she stands on a bridge by the garden pond, she notices a fox's reflection, signifying that a fox spirit is aiding her. When she places the helmet on her head, kitsunebi (fox fires: 狐火) suddenly appear. She finally crosses the frozen lake along a safe path used by foxes and is able to warn Katsuyori. The conflict ends with the seppuku ("incision of the abdomen," i.e., ritual suicide: 切腹) of the assassin and the reconciliation of the Takeda and Nagao clans.
The title cartouche is most unusual, with its border taking the shape of a saru (monkey: 申) at the top and the sides formed by extremely long arms.
The tarnishing visible along the woodgrain on the right and left areas of the background is due to the combination of oxygen molecules with sulphur compounds in the environment — literally, "de-oxidation," not "oxidation as is usually suggested in the literature on Japanese prints. Tarnishing of this kind is very common in ukiyo-e and is not generally considered a defect unless it is so severe as to obscure or disfigure a significant part of the design.
The little known actor Ichikawa Saruzô I (市川猿蔵 1835-1855), who who died very young, was primarily an Edo actor, although he did spend roughly eight years in Kamigata (Osaka-Kyoto region). His father was Ichikawa Ebizô V (市川 海老蔵 1797-1859), who was arrested and then banished from Edo in 4/1842 to 6/1842 for violating sumptuary edicts and relocated in Osaka. Father and son returned to Edo in 2/1850.
We have so far not located another impression of this design.