The Hakkenden (Eight loyal dogs: 八犬傳) refers to the widely popular stories and theatrical productions about nine generations of a fictional clan, the Satomi. In particular, these tales recount the exploits of eight "dog warriors" who were the offspring of their mother Fusehime, given as a reward to a demonic dog, Yatsufusa, which had brought her father (Yoshizane) the head of his enemy Kagetsura. The brothers were scattered throughout different parts of Awa province, but were recognizable by their names, peony birthmarks (the mon or crest of the Satomi clan), and rosary beads (or crystals or luminous spheres), each containing a kanji character for the respective eight Confucian virtues, as follows (the first two names coincide with the roles portrayed by the actors in the present design by Hokuei).
- Inukawa Sôsuke Yoshitô (犬川 荘助 義任): gi (義) - duty and obligation
- Inuyama Dôsetsu Tadatomo (犬山 道節 忠與): chû (忠) - loyalty
- Inuzuka Shino Moritaka (犬塚 信乃 戍孝): kô (孝) - filial piety or devotion
- Inuta Kobungo Yasuyori (犬田 小文吾 悌順): tei (悌) - brotherhood
- Inumura Daikaku (Kakutarô) Masanori (犬村 大角 礼儀): rei (礼) - courtesy
- Inukai Genpachi Nobumichi (犬飼 現八 信道): shin (信) - faith
- Inuzaka Keno Tanetomo (犬阪 毛野 胤智): chi (知) - wisdom
- Inue Shinbei Masashi (犬江 親兵衛 仁): jin (仁) - sympathy and benevolence
The likely inspiration for these kabuki performances was Kyokutei (Takizawa) Bakin's (1767-1848) epic yomihon novel (讀本 or 読本) Nansô Satomi hakkenden ("Tale of the eight loyal dogs of the House of Satomi": 南總里見八犬傳), written and published serially (106 volumes!) over nearly three decades (1814-1842). Bakin lost his sight before he finished the tale and was forced to dictate the final volumes to his daughter-in-law Michi. The popular theaters, bunraku (puppet theater: 文楽) and kabuki, staged many adaptations of Bakin's tale, called as a class Satomi hakkenden mono ("Plays about the eight loyal dogs of Satomi": 里見八犬傳物). Osaka was the first city to dramatize the story in a play called Kinkazan yuki no akebono in 1834.
This scene is a mitate (lit., "look and compare": 見立) or analogue, indicating that the composition was not published for a specific kabuki production. The first theatrical adaptation of Bakin's Satomi hakkenden saga took place in Osaka nearly a year after Hokuei's design — Kinkazan yuki no akebono, 10/1834, at the Wakadayû no Shibai. A better known version written by Nishizawa Ippô (1802-52) titled Hana no ani tsubomi no yatsufusa premiered 1/1836 at the Naka no Shibai, Osaka.
Note: In art historical terms, Hokuei's Hakkenden series was significant as possibly the earliest example of single-sheet actor mitate-e drawn from textual sources that had not yet been dramatized in theatrical works
Hokuei's diptych, including the original carved woodblocks, were replaced or modified years later by the artist Nakai Yoshitaki and his publisher. The right block was completely recut after Hokuei's original, while the left block had a recut head plugged into the keyblock ("inserted wood" or ireki: 入木) to replace the original actor's head. Yoshitaki's reissued design depicts (R) [Jitsukawa Ensaburô I] as Inukawa Sôsuke & [Nakamura Utaemon IV] as Inuyama Dosetsu.
This diptych is one of four designed by Hokuei for the Satomi hakkenden (all four are illustrated in the last reference below *). Together, they represent one of Hokuei's finest groupings on a single theme. The present design sets off the flamboyantly adorned actors (note Dôsetsu's blue serpent robe) and the radiant bead against the black pitch of night, enhancing the dramatic portrayal as they perform a choreographed fight scene (tachimawari, lit., standing and going around: 立回り).
References: WAS-IV, no. 4-499; NKE, p. 556; *Hakkenden no sekai (八犬伝の世界). [The world of the eight loyal dogs] Chiba-shi Bijutsukan 千葉市美術館 (Chiba Museum of Art], 2008, pp. 146-147, nos. 179-182.