Kabuki is an actor-centered art form, but its idea of performance, particularly in Osaka, went beyond the stage to include collaborations among actors, patrons, fan clubs, poetry circles, amateur ukiyo-e artists, and print publishers. The nature of this collective experience was participatory and dynamic, operating within amateur, professional, and social networks whose purpose was to herald the cult of the actor.
Hiiki-renchû (loyal theater fan clubs: 贔屓連中) consisted of patrons and fans of particular actors (or actors in general — see the Sasase club below). Members attended plays, sent gifts to the actors, decorated the theaters, participated in various theater ceremonies, wrote laudatory reviews, and published commemorative surimono. The three main cities of Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka all had many fan clubs, but Osaka hiiki-renchû had especially long unbroken histories and special customs. In Osaka, hiiki-renchû were essential to the careers of the stage performers; without their enthusiastic support, an actor would have a difficult ascent toward the upper ranks of the acting hierarchy. There were four main clubs in Osaka: (1) Sasa-se, founded in 1720 by Sasaya Kohei and Setomonoya Denbei; (2) Ôte, founded in 1770 by Kawachiya Magobei and Yamatoya; (3) Fuji-ishi, founded in 1770 by Fujiwara (given name unknown), who was a timber merchant, and Ishimura (given name unknown), a samisen vendor; and (4) Sakura, founded in 1775 by Fujiya Kisuke, who lived in Senba Midô.
This tetraptych by Sadahiro II introduces an entertaining turnabout, with the actors themselves posing in the costumes of the Sakura-ren. Perhaps no better acknowledgement could be offered to their loyal fans than to perform on stage in the club's distinctive apparel. The tall red zukin or headgear is adorned with a crest reading "ô" (王), which refers to their nickname, "King of Flowers" (Hana-ô: 花王). In other kamigata-e, members of the Sakura-ren are depicted with their zukin emblazoned with the character for "flower" (hana: 花) — see HSD57. Given that Tokugawa-period slang turned hana into a euphemism for anything beautiful, or the best or most desirable, the colloquial meaning of Hana-ô for the Sakura-ren is clear — they were the self-proclaimed best among the actor fan clubs in Osaka. A more common usage was for hana to refer to a beautiful woman or, more specifically, a high-ranking courtesan. Hana treated in this manner even found its way into ironic expressions, such as "Fires and quarrels are the flowers of Edo," a witty encapsulation of a city built mostly of wood and paper that frequently went up in flames, and an urban populace prone to disputes big and small.
The character 王 for the Sakura-ren reappears on the background stage curtain donated jointly by several hiiki-renchû, and so it includes the club names Ôte (大手) and Se (せ placed upon leaves from the sasa or bamboo, for the Sasa-se).
All the actors hold hyôshi gi (wooden clappers: 拍子木) used by kabuki stage assistants to signal critical moments during performances, as well as the opening and closing of the curtain. Each sheet has the actor's crest: (1R and 4R) suzume (sparrow: 雀) for the Nakamura lineage; (2R) tachibana (Mandarin orange: 橘), the crest of the Arashi Rikan actors; and (3R) crossed scrolls, also a crest of the Nakamura actors.
This rare design in unrecorded in the standard literature and we have not seen another impression.
References: IKB-I, no. 2-575