Yoshitoyo I (芳豊) was active c. 1849(51?)–1860 in Osaka and is said to have died in 1862.. His personal name was Hyôzô (兵三), his surname Utagawa (歌川), and his clan name Uehara (上原). Among his many gô (secondary art names) were variations on "Hokusui" (北粋, 北翠, 北醉, 北粹, or 北水), which he also used for a geimei (primary art name). His other gô was Gansuitei (含粹亭). He seems to have been a student, at least for a brief time, of the Edo master Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
The play commemorated in this pentaptych is Mukashi abumi bunbu no isaoshi (Ancient armor and meritorious military exploits: 昔鎧文武功).
These sheets constitute the complete series Gojô meigi no uchi (Five Confucian virtues by their righteous names: 五常名義内). The Gojô (Five Confucian virtues: 五常) are also sometimes referred to as gotoku (五徳). The five virtues are depicted here are: (1R) jin (仁), sympathy or benevolence; (2R) gi (儀 but usually 義), righteousness or justice; (3R) rei (禮), decorum or propriety; (4R) chi (知 or 智), wisdom or knowledge; and (5R) shin (信), faithfulness or integrity.
The gojô, derived from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC), represent basic Confucian ethical concepts and practices. Essentially humanistic in character, Confucianism places particular emphasis on the importance of the family and social harmony, rather than on otherworldly concerns. As a result, ordinary activities, especially human relationships, are considered a manifestation of the sacred, as they express our moral nature. Human beings are judged to be fundamentally good, teachable, and perfectible when engaging in virtuous and ethical personal and communal behavior.
Using a title such as Gojô meigi no uchi falls in line with printmaking practice of the late 1840s-50s in Kamigata following a five-year ban against publishing theatrical prints. Restrictions were imposed by edicts called the Tenpô Reforms (Tenpô kaikaku: 天保改革 1842-1847) initiated by Mizuno Tadakuni (1774-1851), chief councilor (rôjû: 牢中) to the shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi. Many works by Osaka artists during this period omitted the names of actors and included uplifting titles to suggest a righteous historical subject, placing a thin veil of propriety over what were actually theatrical subjects. No one was fooled, of course, but publishers and artists could take refuge in abiding by the letter of the law.
The irezumi (tattoo: 入墨) on Tamizô's left arm reads "Isshun" (一心), the role name. (In Osaka, a term for irezumi is monmon, crests or patterns: 紋紋.) This non-figurative style of tattoo was known as irebokuro (lit., "putting in the mole": 入墨子), originating in Kamigata (the Kyoto-Osaka region) around the mid-seventeenth century. Initially, irebokuro referred to inking a small dot on the back of the hand at the base of the thumb, positioned so that when holding hands, the tips of lovers’ thumbs would be adjacent to the dots. In the pleasure quarters of the major cities, the irebokuro tattoo gradually developed from a short name or text into a complex figurative image, also around the mid-seventeenth century.
The complete series is rare and even single sheets are not easy to find. For example, the two largest repositories of kamigata-e in Japan do not include any of the sheets, i.e., none are listed in the published catalogs of the Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Museum (WAS) or the Ikeda Bunko (IBKYS) collection.
References: OSP, no. 235; Ritsumeikan University has the only 1R (arcBK01-0038_49) and 5R sheets (arcBK01-0038_50).