Spring – What Spring?

Hirosada. Nichiren Shonin from the series Life of St Nichiren, 1848

Hirosada, Life of St Nichiren: Nichiren Shonin , 1848

The spring 2020 exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery was meant to be about spring. The joy of new life; cherry blossom, budding trees, love, birth, renewal… alas,  how the world is plunged into fear and illness and despair. Life nevertheless goes on. First and foremost, like all businesses with regular clients we wish to express our hope that all our readers are well, and stay fit and healthy during the pandemic and that the world recovers from such misery as well as it may.

It does not seem long ago that we were expressing sympathy and solidarity with  Japanese friends, colleagues and victims of the horrific tsunami that caused so much destruction. The picture at the top of this post has many poignant messages for us. It is a print by the Japanese Osaka artist Konishi Hirosada (ca 1810 – 1864), and it is of the Buddhist monk and scholar, Nichiren en route to the island of Sado in 1271. There he is in exile, on his way to poverty, loneliness and isolation and a storm has risen up threatening to capsize his boat and send him to the bottom of the sea; the fate awaiting the boat in the background.  Nichiren calms the waves by chanting “hail to the sublime lotus sutra” and his party reaches safety. Nichiren’s revolutionary faith stressed the immanence of enlightment existing in people here and now… a kind of resilience that is apt at the present time.

Of course the Japanese have long been victims of natural disaster, plague and epidemic. The print below is by Kuniyoshi and is titled On The Belly Of Calmness, The Hand Of Anxiety.

On The Belly Of Calmness, The Hand Of Anxiety

Kuniyoshi, On The Belly Of Calmness, The Hand Of Anxiety

The print likely refers to anxiety about economic collapse due to foreign trade, but it is in a long line of stoical prints to encourage a beleaguered population.

New Prints at the Toshidama Gallery

Nevertheless, we are showing new prints this month. Outstanding among them is surely this superb okubi-e print of Otani Tomoemon as Michizane from an untitled series of actor bust portraits by Kunichika, from 1869. It’s a masterpiece this print, an understated portrait of tremendous strength and brevity. The drawing here is minimal, and almost like the day it was printed; colour, impression and condition are really superb. The collar is deeply, cleanly embossed. The figure of Michizane looms… filling the frame, superbly refined, the drawing barely exists. The thinness of the lines describing the ears and faintest printed marks for the delineation of the chin emphasise the thickness and flabbiness of the flesh.

Kunichika. Otani Tomoemon as Michizane.1869

Kunichika, Otani Tomoemon as Michizane, 1869

Kunichika has made the entertaining print below, so lovely, so witty, so full of life! It’s a lion dancer in a wig, entranced by the magical peony flowers – like the one in his hair. There is a lovely story about this dance; it is a metaphor for Buddhist enlightenment. A monk wishes to cross an ancient stone bridge and pass into the mystic mountains beyond – home of a bodhisattva. A lion comes onto the bridge and the dance ensues. The bridge is a metaphor for the journey to understanding and its perils and challenges. The series of prints expressed some of the dismay that the people of Edo felt at the rapid change of westernisation that had occurred. In the cartouche is a picture of the oldest bridge in Japan and the hordes of commuters in modern dress, heedless of the history beneath their feet.

chikawa Danjuro in the role of Shakkyo. 1877

Kunichika. Meganebashi Bridge, Ichikawa Danjuro in the role of Shakkyo. 1877

What fresher scene than this lovely Kunisada print of the legendary Prince Genji can there be; the surface is alive with jewel-like sprays of colour and embossed with deep outlines of clouds and suggestions of temple walls. The delicate figure of Genji… exemplar of the Edo ideals of maleness, delicacy, strength, poetry and loyalty…lounges in the centre.

Kunisada. From the series Lingering Sentiments of a Late Collection of Genji. 1858.

Kunisada, Lingering Sentiments of a Late Collection of Genji, 1858.

We shall continue to update this blog with prints and stories from Edo Japan. It would appear that for some of us, a period of enforced isolation lies ahead. Contemplation of beauty is never a bad thing; beauty, love, sentiment, reflection… Baudelaire talked of:

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

Ryo Asai, defined the idea of the Floating World that is the subject of so much Japanese art in his novel, Ukiyo-e Monogatari (“Tales of the Floating World”, 1660)

“Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…”

The selection of pictures in this post is at the Toshidama Gallery during March and April 2020.

Posted in Hirosada, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kunichika, Kunisada, Osaka Prints, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Figures and Backgrounds in Ukiyo-e

Sadamasu. Okawa Hashizo as Rokusa, c1848

Sadamasu, Okawa Hashizo as Rokusa, c1848

The new online exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery looks at the ways in which Japanese print artists embeded figures  into what art historians call the ‘ground’ and what is sometimes the ‘background’ and sometimes the ‘foreground’. In western art, the tradition has long existed that the painting – the frame – is a window onto a world outside. The picture frame holds an illusion of three dimensions and since the middle ages, or at least the Renaissance, there has been a desire to make this as realistic… as convincing as possible. It is remarkable that modern ways of seeing the world… computer screens, photographs, digital devices, mimic precisely all of the conventions that were first developed by the van Eycks or Leonardo. Any fifteenth century artist would be quite at home with the pictorial conventions of Instagram or a magazine fashion shoot.

Titian. Portrait of Bellini.

Titian, Portrait of Bellini.

Other cultures in other times, have shown the world differently… scrolls that stress the imortance of the passing of time, or different viewpoints for example. In the picture above by Titian, the artist has tried to make the figure sit ‘inside’ the picture using shadows, and blurred edges, recession, perspective and so on. The Sadamasu portrait of the carpenter Rokusa above it doesn’t bother. It’s much more graphic – the background is a drape of striped material, but it’s not actually there I don’t think… the figure casts no shadow, the stripes are perfectly parallel. it’s as though the portrait has been cut out and pasted onto some actual cloth. If we look again at the print, the cloth, were it real, would be a very big pattern and the design he has illustrated is for kimono cloth, in other words the scale of the cloth and figure are very different. The artist has suspended the attributes of the carpenter, in the guise of the actor, against the image of some material. In other words there’s no great effort at realism which is the crucial difference between Japanese and Western art.

Kunisada. Bandô Hikosaburô IV as Tokiyori, from 36 Selected Poems. 1852.

Kunisada, Bandô Hikosaburô IV as Tokiyori, from 36 Selected Poems, 1852.

In the stunning print by Kunisada of Tokiyori above, the flat background is replaced by a snow scene. The scene is imaginary and it represents part of the story that is being told and the poem that the print is about. Kunisada has floated his figure (again an actor playing an historical character), against what could be a painted scene. He has also inserted a device – the cloud like screen between the figure and the background. It’s all done so confidently that we don’t really notice but it is a device from Chinese art that was used in ancient times to solve the problems of aeriel perspective – hence the cloud shapes. Kunisada uses it to create flat space between figure and ground. He goes further by putting a thick black key line right around the outline of the figure; the effect is to push Tokiyori forward, almost as if he were in a portrait photographer’s studio, or a newsreader with a photo of the Manhatten skyline behind him.

Kunisada. Station #39 Okazaki From the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road. 1852.

Kunisada, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road #39 Okazaki Station, 1852.

The rare double portrait of Matsuemon and his wife (above), occupies an even stranger territory where the figures sit against a very beautiful backdrop and with a cloud screen between them and the landscape but they themselves do not touch… their clothing is restricted to their own sheet. The double print, which was sold as two singles is like a giant collage where the meaning is in the symbolism of the elements and the beauty is abstract – aesthetic – the actor, the role, the scene… they all occupy different symbolic worlds. The marriage of form and content is different therefore to western traditions whereby it was desirable for form and content to remain contiguous.

Kunisada. Sawamura Tosho as Nippon Daemon. 1862. Oban.

Kunisada. Sawamura Tosho as Nippon Daemon. 1862. Oban.

The greater flexibility enjoyed by Japanese artists is really evident in the print of the kabuki actor Sawamura Tossho as Nippon Daemon (above). Here we have an indeterminate ground… neither background nor middle ground, the blend from red to green is not suggestive of solid surface nor hanging cloth. Against this miasma is held the bat portion of a battledore; it’s confusing because the shuttlecock and a large ball seem to be lying on the surface but somehow flattened. They are stand-ins for the game being played, symbols that tell us about the game and add simply gorgeous line, shape and colour. The meat of the print is the image of the portrait because here again we are passing through layers. The bat would have a had a padded back with an actor portrait painted on on the cloth. We are looking at the painted portrait of an actor, himself playing a role. The wood of the back is printed off the roughened texture of real wood… a further complication. The figure here is held, contained on the bat… the bat is contained by the edges of the print. The whole thing is a game, a game of bat and ball and a game of signs.

Kunichika. One Hundred Roles of Baiko: Onoe Kikugoro V as Tsubone no Iwafuji, 1893.

Kunichika, 100 Roles of Baiko: Onoe Kikugoro V as Tsubone no Iwafuji, 1893.

Sometimes the Japanese print artist reduces the image to a series of narrative signs whereby it is very difficult to establish the ‘back’ of the background. Take Kunichika’s One Hundred Roles of Baiko – a valedictary series of 100 prints celebrating the kabuki actor’s finest roles. In the role of Iwafuji, the secondary panel presses down on Baiko, compressing the image, cutting short the umbrella. The background is plain and dark, the pattern of the woodblock grain emphasised, the upper cartouche of the skeleton and ghost fire predominates – it acts both to inform us, the viewer of the story, and the character that she will die horribly and return as a skeleton. In this series there are no conventional backgrounds but a series of grounds, played off against each other, connected and interwoven but as narratives not in a coherent visual landscape. The ‘view’ of western art does not exist here.

Hirosada. Ox, from 12 Signs of the Zodiac Alluded, 1850.

Hirosada, 12 Signs of the Zodiac Alluded: Ox, 1850.

Where figures are tied to their ground, it is invariably as a depiction of an already conventionalised form – that of the theatre. In the Hirosada diptych above, the scene of two men, one riding a bull on a beach is an illustration of a scene from the theatre… but only by convention. The figure on the bull is the exiled sage and demi-god, Kanshoji. The scene is taken from a play but produced under a period of strict moral censorship when it was illegal to depict dramas. It is highly unlikely that an ox was ever brought on stage, but the faces of the two actors, Kataoka Gadô II as Umeomaru and Mimasu Daigorô IV as Kanshoji would have been instantly recognizable to audiences. As far as the censor is concerned the print (one of twelve) is a series of depictions of the zodiac signs. And hence we have a very complex image – two characters seemingly on a beach and yet the scenery is like backdrop (which it is), the actors cast no shadow… suggesting that the scene is not ‘real’, and the portraits are of actors playing roles. It is hard therefore to say with certainty what the artist has shown us. Not figures on a ground but interlocking shapes, each equally important, each rendered with the same depth and fidelity. Symbols – such as the roundel identifying the zodiac animal are given equal prominence. We ‘read’ the image as a set of symbols and register the disposition of the forms differently to western painting and drawing.

Hasegawa Munehiro. From An Unpublished Series of Preparatory Drawings, 1850’s

Hasegawa Munehiro, From An Unpublished Series of Preparatory Drawings, 1850’s

Drawing, (the picture above is a very rare example by Munehiro) helps us to see the ‘all over’ nature of Japanese art at this time. The surface is abstract pretty much, the face and the wonderful, almost gothic drawing of the hands are islands of figuration against a super-active surface of pattern and design. So complex is the dense symbolism of Japanese art that even the designs on the kimono are of significance – thunder cloud forms here lending the figure extra violence. Missing from the drawing, (to be added later), are the various cartouches… one large cartouche at least for the series title and others for the actor name and character. Crammed in too would be the small publisher, block cutter and censor seals, all of them floating on the picture plane with the actor and the background pushed behind them.

Only in true landscape formats are the figure and ground consistent in space… at least as far as western pictorial space is concerned.

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Hiroshige, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road – Tsuchiyama, 1833

This very fine Hiroshige landscape confuses the figure and ground in a way unacceptable to a western landscape artist. Hiroshige anticipates photography by cropping the image seemingly randomly, the figures making their way against the rain are shapes of discs and triangles, evocative and well observed but they are made of the same stuff as the torrent they are crossing. There is no horizon hence the ground is again, (like the portrait backgrounds) ambiguous.  Everyone, everything is held behind the cage of the rain.

Japanese woodblock prints liberate the figure from the ground by either dispensing with it altogether, or by embedding it like in marquetry, or by creating a series of flat cut outs arranged in shallow space – like the flats in a theatre. The figure can be turned into the complex system of signs and symbols that create narrative or else be involved in the complex visual game of ‘mitate‘ where people and things stand for or make equivalence with other things… naturalism as known in the west is not part of the repertoire of ukiyo-e artists, their game was more complicated, more cerebral, perhaps because their culture was more consistent, more hermetic. Their influence, because of the inviting complexity of their achievement, spread to the west, unseating the academies and the traditional way of seeing, via the impressionists and then the post-impressionists. Their legacy is the art of van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso.

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Hirosada, Actors in the Play Dojima Sukui no Tatehiki, 1850

Figure and Ground in Japanese Prints is online at the Toshidama Gallery in February and March 2020.

Posted in Figure and Ground, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Teahouse of the August Moon…

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Well, not quite. I wanted to look at a new print at the Toshidama Gallery; a superb Yoshikazu image of a teahouse in Yokohama from 1861. It’s an outstanding image, it opens up an impossible series of spaces, bridges, walkways, vistas, rooms within rooms, murals of Chinese waterfalls, and of course westerners in ‘overseas’ gear and hapless and compliant Japanese – recently defeated by the agressive 1858 trade agreement with ‘the five nations’. Of course the teahouse above is not from that time at all, that is the movie poster from the Marlon Brando movie that comically examines the fallout of American occupation post 1945.

Yoshikazu (active 1850-1870) Foreigners Enjoying Themselves in the Gankiro Teahouse. 1861

Yoshikazu (active 1850-1870) Foreigners Enjoying Themselves in the Gankiro Teahouse, 1861

I became fascinated by this triptych of the Gankiro Teahouse from Yoshikazu, and began looking for other images that expand the views suggested by the clashing perspectives and the glimpses of views not fully explained by the drawing. I should like to think that Yoshikazu used this mixture of western and Japanese perspective as a metaphor for the  mixing of cultures in these early efforts at international trade.

The architecture that forms a backdrop to the scenes of cavorting struck me as highly unlikely until I came across the following engraving of the same teahouse from 1874, made by an American artist where no such liberties were taken with the perspective.

Interior of the Gankiro Teahouse 1874

Interior of the Gankiro Teahouse, 1874

In the Yoshikazu print we are up on the first floor – the bannisters on the right are the ones at the top of this print, looking down on the bridge and the carp pool. Better still is a print by Hiroshige the second of the Gankiro Teahouse from the same year as the Yoshikazu but from the same ground floor viewpoint as the American print of a decade or more later. Like the Yoshikazu, the scene is one of bustling trade… the clumsy sailor visible in the background is a comical projection on a paper screen.

Interior of the Gankirō Tea House in Yokohama

Hiroshige II, Interior of the Gankirō Tea House in Yokohama, 1861

When we go upstairs, back to the scene of the Yoshikazu, we see a colourful room in the top far right of the picture… this is the ‘fan room’ of the teahouse. The fan room by all accounts was a major attraction and quite famous. I presume this was a kind of museum display. We get a better look at this room in a print by Yoshiiku also from 1860. In the Yoshiiku the ‘Five Nations’ are represented again dancing and drinking. They are being served by ‘geisha’ and here we have a clearer picture of the fans themselves on a blue background.

Yoshiiku. The Five Nations Enjoying a Revel at the Gankirō Tea House. 1860

Yoshiiku, The Five Nations Enjoying a Revel at the Gankirō Tea House, 1860

The Fan room and the long corridor down the side of the upper floor appears again in the print below also from 1860 and again by Hiroshige II. In this version the same peculiar hybrid architecture is seen as in the Yoshikazu and we are also given a sense of the location of the tea house from the view across the bay at Yokohama.

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Hiroshige II, Upper Floor of the Gankiro in Yokohama, 1860

All of these make a nice contrast to a stunning e-sugoroku board that depicts a teahouse in the Japanese Yoshiwara; this traditional teahouse has similar confusing perspectives and a wholly Japanese clientele.

Kunichika. E-sugoroku Board of a Teahouse in the Yoshiwara, Mid - 1860’s

Kunichika, E-sugoroku Board of a Teahouse in the Yoshiwara, Mid – 1860’s

Of course our picture at the top of this post, the poster of Tea House of the August Moon was a play and a movie that promulgated western presumption of Japanese women as exotic, available, promiscuous and so on… albeit in a manner that made the whole business seem jolly and consensual. The last picture in this post is a photograph of the interior of a teahouse from the 1880’s. This perhaps adds a note of realism into the mixed messages of all these images.

A Japanese Teahouse 1880's

A Japanese Teahouse, 1880’s

Posted in Japanese prints, Sugoroku, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized, Yokohama, Yoshiwara | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bandits and Warlords. Fighting men in Japanese prints.

Kuniyoshi, Du Qian, the Sky Toucher. The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden. 1827

The Toshidama Gallery is showing a collection of prints featuring aggressive and violent folk heroes and warlords. The selection looks at how the populace of Edo expressed their frustration with the government and with the increasingly corrupt samurai class. As a consequence, they lionised not only heroic ‘social-justice-warriors’ like Du Qian (above) but also the most reprehensible hooligans like An no Heibei and Hotei Ichiemon, below.

Kunisada, Ichikawa Kuzô III as An no Heibei and Nakamura Fukusuke I as Hotei Ichiemon

Kunisada, Ichikawa Kuzô III as An no Heibei and Nakamura Fukusuke I as Hotei Ichiemon, 1855

Du Quian was one of the Chinese Heroes of the Water Margin, 108 rebels who sought refuge in the margins of Liangshan Marsh in the 12th century.  These rebel warriors sought to protect the poor and downtrodden, very much like Robin Hood’s band of outcasts in medieval England. In fact they were probably far more terrifying and considerably less altruistic than they are portrayed. Kuniyoshi here shows the collossal strength of the legendary hero… literally assaulting the walls of power – an appropriate meme for our times!

Less noble by far is the story of the  two characters in the Kunisada print above. These young men were hooligans from the infamous Band of Seven, who became the legendary Five Men of Naniwa, their hapless, ruinous lives of ignominy transformed by eager playwrights into heroic men fighting for their own freedom, the liberty of their streetwalker fiancés and of course for common decency. Once safely out of the way – they were beheaded at the execution grounds in 1702 for stabbing and robbing an innocent shopkeeper – their lives were rehabilitated, conflated with heroes like the Soga Brothers and their images commemorated on woodblock prints and souvenirs. The awful reality of their ends can be seen on this page at the website Japanthis.

Yoshitoshi, Habakari Yūkichi reading by a lantern from Biographies of Modern Men. 1865.

Yoshitoshi, Habakari Yūkichi reading by a lantern from Biographies of Modern Men. 1865.

The handsome Yoshitoshi above picks up a similar theme… In 1849, there were two gambling rings led by rival gangsters. The toughest was led by Lioka Sukegoro. The smaller led by Hanzo Sukegoro. Yoshitoshi’s series glorifies the struggle between these two gangs and commemorates the individual gang members – such as Yukichi above – and devotes an entire sheet to each man. The details of their lives would have been available in the broadsheets of the time and the populace considered them tremendous heroes. The feud continued to be a favourite story going as far as being made into a movie – The Tale of Zatoichi – in 1962!

A Scene From the Tale of Zatoichi 1962

A Scene From the Tale of Zatoichi 1962

Benten is another such anti-hero, superbly realised in Yoshitoshi’s very early and very rare print of 1862. A kabuki drama, loosely based in fact describes the usual hapless journey from petty thieving to accidental violence via the inevitable street-walker girlfriend and final showdown with the authorities. Benten kozo appears in the play, Aoto Zôshi Hana no Nishikie, which premiered in 1862. There followed a flurry of woodblock prints and it is instructive to compare the Yoshitoshi below to the Kunisada to which it bears an obvious similarity.

Kunisada, Benten Kozo. 1862

Kunisada, Benten Kozo. 1862

Let’s not think that it’s only men who are capable of extreme violence! The Toshidama Gallery exhibition is also showing another Yoshitoshi of the warrior heroine Tomoe Gozen, seen despatching the Taira warrior Musashi Saburoemon Arikuni in a fight from the northern campaign of Minamoto no Yoshinaka during the Genpei Wars of the late twelfth century. For these prints and others on this theme, visit the Toshidama Gallery from 27th September for one month.

Yoshitoshi_Famous_Fights_Tomoe_Gozen

Posted in Asian Art, Floating World, Japanese Art, Japanese gangster, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Male Tragedy, Otokodate, Suikoden, yoshitoshi | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sugoroku Magic – Narukami shonin

Narukami shonin

Narukami shonin

Below the great rat of Yoshitaka on the sugoroku board we are featuring, is this splendid figure in feiry robes and clouds of smoke. It is the magician Narukami. Narukami lived in a hermitage near a waterfall in which he has has imprisoned the dragon god. The land was suffering from drought and so the Emperor sent a beautiful Princess to break the curse and restore the rainfall. When she arrived at the monastry she met Narukami’s servants, Hakuunbo and Kokuunbo, who immediately fell under her spell.

Narukami and Princess Taema

Narukami and Princess Taema

She tells them she has come to pray for her late husband and to wash one of his garments since there is no water in the capital. The acolytes and Narukami listen entranced as she goes into intimate and sensuous detail about how she met her husband and how they made love. Narukami feels faint from listening to the story and falls off the veranda of his room. Princess Taema revives him by transferring water from her lips to his. She seduces Narukami when they are alone and he reveals that the dragon god remains imprisoned as long as the sacred rope across the waterfall is intact. When Narukami falls into a drunken stupor, Princess Taema creeps away and cuts the rope. She escapes as thunder and lightning fill the sky and rain pours down. When Narukami revives, his anger at being tricked transforms him into a thunder god and we see him in a final pose wearing a costume covered in orange-red flames and glaring in the direction his seductress has fled.

Posted in Edo, Floating World, ghosts, Japanese Demon, Kunisada, Magical, supernatural Japanese print, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Sugoroku Magic – Shimidzu no Kwanja Yoshitaka

Shimidzu no Kwanja Yoshitaka

From A Kunichika Sugoroku – Shimidzu no Kwanja Yoshitaka

What a spendid rat! The magician riding along here is not Nikki Danjo – the great kabuki villain who transforms into a rat in order to steal a valuable scroll – this chap is Shimidzu no Kwanja Yoshitaka. He was the son of Yoshinaka, who had sent him as a hostage to Yoritomo (the Shogun) during the Heike war.

The political intrigue of the twelfth century saw Yoshinaka betrayed, exiled and hunted down after the battle of Awazu. In an attempt to kill himself he became lost in the frozen marshes of Omi Province and was killed by a party of foot soldiers.

Shimidzu no Kwanja Yoshitaka attempted to avenge the betrayal of his father by killing the Shogun, but failed, and was beheaded. According to legend, the spirit of a friendly Yamabushi (mountain hermit) took the shape of a giant rat to help him in his enterprise, albeit  ineffectively. The picture below is once again (for this series of posts) from Kunisada’s A Contest of Magic Scenes – one of his great last series from 1864. The influence is very clear… the smoke and the overall arrangement.

Kunisada. Yoshitaka from A Contest of Magic Scenes 1864

Kunisada. Yoshitaka from A Contest of Magic Scenes 1864

It is a popular image in ukiyo-e, Kuniyoshi illustrated the story in an 1845 series on the Sixty Provinces of Japan. The story is now more or less forgotten and survives really only in these  prints.

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Kuniyoshi 60 Odd Provinces: Shimidzu no Kwanja Yoshitaka. 1845

Posted in Edo, Floating World, Japanese Art, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Magical, supernatural Japanese print, Toshidama Gallery. | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Sugoroku Magic – Jiraiya

Jiraiya and Magic Toad from a Sugoroku Compendium, 1870

Jiraiya and Magic Toad from a Sugoroku Compendium, 1870

This picture is from our current ongoing series of magicians and ghosts all taken from squares on a nineteenth century sugoroku board by the artist Kunichika. This picture is the fourth square from the left on the top row and if you look at the board itself, you will see that these two characters share a great cloud of supernatural smoke with another magician, conjuring a rat.

Well, the child above is riding on the back of a gigantic toad, the toad not looking overjoyed. The boy holds onto the robes of a standing figure who it turns out is a master magician and will teach the boy – Jiraiya – the secrets of toad magic.

Kunisada. Jiraiya and Ayame

Kunisada. Jiraiya and Ayame. 1852

Jiraiya of course  is the toad riding magical character of the Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari  (The Tale of the Gallant Jiraiya). The story was adapted into a 19th-century serial novel, a kabuki drama, several films, video games and a manga. In the legend, Jiraiya is a ninja who uses shapeshifting magic to change into a gigantic toad. As the heir of the mighty Ogata clan. Jiraiya fell in love with Tsunate, a princess who has mastered slug magic. His arch-enemy was his one-time follower Yashagoro, later known as Orochimaru, a master of snake magic. The picture above shows the adult Jiraiya with another character from the play, Ayame, his estranged sister. In order to create a poison that will avenge the family, Ayame must fatally stab herself and Jiraiya must use her blood to kill Yashagoro.

 As a youth, Jiraiya was rescued by the hermit, Senso Dôjin; pictured below:

Sadanobu Ichikawa Ebizo V as Senso Dojin. 1854

Sadanobu Ichikawa Ebizo V as Senso Dojin. 1854

 

Most people are naturally puzzled by the idea of toad magic let alone slug magic… there is an explanation. The game of Ken is played in Japan in a similar way to Rock, paper, scissors. Ken games are played with three hand gestures, named sansukumi-ken, which translates into “ken of the three who are afraid of one another.” The “toad” is represented by the thumb and that wins against the “slug” represented by the little finger, which, in turn defeats the “snake” represented by the index finger, which in turn wins against the “frog“. The game originated in China where the centipede was the slug and was thought able to kill the snake. The picture underneath is the oldest known representation of the game from 1809. The play of Jiraiya was a construct upon this practical idea.

600px-Mushi-ken_(虫拳),_Japanese_rock-paper-scissors_variant,_from_the_Kensarae_sumai_zue_(1809)

It can be easily spotted that Kunichika used a previous design by Kunisada as the model for his own Jiraiya:

Kunisada. Jiraiya and Toad, 1850’s.

Kunisada. Jiraiya and Toad, 1850’s.

 

Posted in Asian Art, Edo, Floating World, Japanese Art, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Kunisada, Magical, Sugoroku, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment