The play Megumi Soga homare no Fujiyama (In praise of the harmonious Soga at Mt. Fuji: 和合曽我誉富士) is one of many Soga monogatari (Tales of the Soga brothers: 曾我物語), quintessential models of katakiuchi-mono (tales of revenge killings: 敵討物) in the puppet and kabuki theaters, as well as popular literature and song. These dramas, adapted from actual events, chronicled the attempted revenge taken in 1193 by two brothers (Soga no Jûrô Sukenari, 曾我の十郎祐成 and Soga no Gorô Tokimune, 曾我の五郎時致) upon Kudô Suketsune (工藤祐経), who was guilty of murdering their father Kawazu Sukeyasu (河津祐泰) years earlier in 1176. Many of these variant plays were also identified as Genroku Soga (Soga of the Genroku period: 元禄曾我). In Edo and Meiji-period kabuki, Soga mono were traditionally staged nearly every theatrical season at the New Year, although the present 1875 drama was performed a bit later that year. These tales often conflated other stories of heroism and revenge. The role of Kagekiyo (景清), for example, cited on this design would suggests such was the case with the 1875 production of Megumi Soga homare no Fujiyama, given that Taira no Kagekiyo (平 景清), retired as a samurai of the Taira clan after being captured in 1185 at the battle of Dan-no-ura (壇ノ浦の戦い), a key event during the Genpei War (源平合戦). In 1196, Kagekiyo starved himself to death in the new capital of Kamakura.
Arrangements of large numbers of actors on a single sheet or polyptychs were popular in Osaka (and Edo) printmaking. An array of cast members would have appealed to various sorts of print buyers, most certainly those who were fans of kabuki as an art and entertainment form, rather than aficionados who were loyal to, if not obsessed with, a particular star from the stage. Even so, the latter type of fan-club member would often be interested in acquiring a design such as Yoshitaki's pentaptych for the sake of a memento of the cast in a successful production, as long as their beloved performer was included among the portraits.
Not all the actors and roles can be matched up in existing kabuki records (see Kabuki nenpyô, KNP ref. below); nevertheless, the identifications on this pentaptych are as follows, right to left: (1) Kataoka Matsutarô I (片岡松太郎) as Yosooi-hime (粧姫); (2) Nakamura Jakuemon II (中村雀右衛門) as Shinzaemon (新左衛門); (3) Nakamura Kashichi IV (中村嘉七) as Nenoi Oyata (根ノ井大弥太); (4) Arashi Rikan IV (嵐璃寛) as Yuki Shichirô (結城七郎); (5) Onoe Tamizô II (尾上多見蔵) as Kagekiyo (景清); (6) Jitsukawa Enjaku I (実川延若) as Noriuji (教氏); (7) Jitsukawa Yaozô I (実川八百蔵) as Kyo no Jirô (京ノ次郎); (8) Ichikawa Udanji I (市川右團次) as Miuranosuke (三浦之助); (9) Nakamura Fukusuke III (中村福助) as Ema Koshirô (江間小四郎); (10) Nakamura Keijô I (中むら慶女) as Tsukisayo (月小夜); and (11) Arashi Kitsusaburô IV (嵐橘三郎) as Yoshitaka (義高).
This design is surely one of Yoshitaki's most intensely printed works, with abundant use of a vivid red, probably cochineal carmine (a red insect dye, not an aniline dye; see recent research at Aniline Dyes). There is, as well, a very strong purple colorant, likely to be rosaniline (magenta), the first synthetic dye to be used in nishiki-e. From 1875, it was usually mixed or replaced with methyl violet (an aniline dye) for a stronger purple. In Japan, these colorants are sometimes referred to as kakushin no iro (colors of progress: 革新の色), as they have been associated with the progress of a nation intent on modernizing and assimilating the most progressive aspects of western culture during the Meiji period (1868-1912).
For more about this artist, see Yoshitaki Biography.
References: IKBYS-5, no. 530; KNP-7, p. 216