Ishikawa Goemon is a featured role in Keisei ishikawazome (A courtesan and dyed Ishikawa colors: けいせい石川染), one of the many Ishikawa Goemon mono (plays about Ishikawa Goemon: 石川 五右衛門物). Although we are unfamiliar with the plot of Keisei ishikawazome and the role of Shirojirô Naonobu, some designs for this play other than the Hirosada print shown here depict the quasi-legendary outlaw Goemon, and the Ishikawa of the play title makes a direct reference to his surname. In real life, Goemon (1558 – 10/8/1594) was the son of the sixteenth-century warrior Takechi (Akechi) Mitsuhide, who was killed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) just before the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate. Hideyoshi ordered the extermination of the entire clan, but the young Goemon survived, and years later sought to avenge his father's death by killing Hideyoshi. After numerous intrigues and escapes (in the theatrical dramas Goemon possesses magical powers and is a master of disguise), he was eventually captured and executed — in reality, by being boiled in oil, along with his son, in a gruesome public spectacle. Goemon's exploits were very popular subjects in legend, songs, narrative fiction, and plays. The mainstay in the kabuki repertoire on this theme is Kinmon (Sanmon) gosan no kiri (The golden gate and paulownia crest: 金門五三桐), first performed in 4/1778 at the Naka Theater, Osaka.
This print is titled Chûkô bûyuden (Tales of courage, loyalty, and filial piety: 忠孝武勇伝) in the red and white carotuche at the upper right. It is one of several similar titles that Hirosada used on prints in the wake of the Tenpô kaikaku (Tenpô Reforms: 天保改革) that had banned the publication of actor prints from 1842 to 1847. These print or series labels amounted to bit of transparent camouflage — no one, including government censors, was fooled into thinking that these images were anything but actor prints; still, the gesture helped satisfy the letter of the law. Note, too, that the actor's name is not given on the print, a small price to pay to skirt penalties, as ukiyo-e patrons knew the physiognomies of the actors and were intimately familiar with current stage productions..
References: IKBYS-IV, no. 71; NKE, p. 551