The background to Hokuei's print celebrates the legendary Chinzei Hachirô Tametomo (1139-70). He was said to be seven feet tall and a celebrated archer whose bow was more than eight feet long, requiring the strength of three ordinary men to bend it. He could shoot arrows — their tips as large as spears — with such force that they could sink an enemy ship. Purported to have chased away the god of smallpox, Tametomo's image acquired talismanic powers against the disease, leading to his portrayal in "smallpox prints" (hôsô-e).
The historical Minamoto Tametomo joined his father, the general Tameyoshi, in the seminal Genpei wars. In the first major battle — the Hôgan Incident of 1156 — Tametomo fought against Taira forces led by his brother, Yoshitomo. The victorious Yoshitomo ordered the execution of Tameyoshi and the exile of Tametomo. During his banishment to the island of Ôshima in Izu, Tametomo conquered some of the neighboring islands. This brought forth an imperial expeditionary force to hunt him down. With no escape, Tametomo took his own life, said to be the first recorded instance in which a samurai committed ritualistic suicide by seppuku ("incision of the abdomen" or ritual suicide: 切腹).
The Tametomo legend introduces Neiwanjo in an epic tale written by Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848). It was published in fiction-book format in 29 volumes from 1807-11 under the title "Strange Tales of the Crescent Moon" (Chinsetsu yumihari zuki). In this version, Tametomo finds refuge in the Ryûkyû Islands. When he shipwrecks at Okinawa in the Ryûkyû archipelago, he defends Princess Neiwanjo against a minister plotting to take over her throne. He then marries her and fathers a son who becomes the first in a lineage of Okinawan kings, the ancestors of Ashikaga Takaiji (1305-58), who established the Ashikaga shogunate, reigning from 1336 to 1568. Tragedy ensues, however, when Neiwanjo dies. Tametomo then follows her to heaven, leaving their son to rule.
Neiwanjo is adorned in the manner of a Chinese princess. Her hô-ô (mythical bird similar to a phoenix: 鳳凰) headdress signifies a courtly or royal status.
Portraits within roundels were part of a vogue for compositions representing both "mirrors" (kagami) of actors and, more obliquesly, telescopic views modeled after imported Western scopic instruments. Another influence might have been the "ceiling curtains" (tenjômaku) with roundel portraits painted on cloths that were presented to actors. Here the roundel reflects Iwai Shijaku I holding a rigid, oval Chinese-style fabric (or possibly silk) fan (generically called a pien-mien, meaning "to agitate the air") as she looks over at Tametomo (whose role in this production was performed by Arashi Rikan II).
As in other surviving impressions of this design, the keyblock was altered to remove a seal (co-publisher?) at the middle right inside the roundel.
References: IKB-I, 2-431; KNP-6, p. 266; KUR, p. 240