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.

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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.


Kuniyoshi 60 Odd Provinces: Shimidzu no Kwanja Yoshitaka. 1845

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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.


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.


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Sugoroku Magic – Princess Yuki

Scan copy

Princess Yuki from a Sugoroku Board by Kunichika – 1860’s

The image above is the top centre panel from an amazing Sugoroku game board designed by the artist Toyoharu Kunichika in the 1860’s. You can see the whole board at the Toshidama Gallery website by clicking this link: Sugoroku Board.

The gallery gives plenty of information about the game and how the board works; these posts are about the individual squares and what they mean.

The Daimyo, Daizen is one  of the famous villains from kabuki theatre and one of the famous scenes in which he appears is the one pictured here, a tremendous game of go performed during the play, Kinkakuji.


A Scene from Gion Sairei Shinkoki

The image above is of the same scene from a contemporary performance. The website, kabuki A – Z provided the image. The powerful and wicked warlord – in the big wig – has killed the shogun and captured his mother. He lives in great luxury indulging his passion for the board game go. Tokichi arrives and challenges him to a game and wins… further challenges reveal Tokichi to be a master strategist. Princes Yuki – seen in the pictures above is a captive of Daizen, but she escapes his clutches by conjuring mice that she has drawn with her toes in the sand, commanding them to gnaw through the ropes that bind her. Tokichi it turns out has been sent to rescue her and kill the wicked Daizen.

A full account of the plot can be found at the terrific site kabuki21 . The presence of the scene on a sugoroku of magical scenes is presumably because Yuki-hime is a magician and conjurer a fact possibly signified by the spider web drawn in the background. Daizen is pictured on the left and Tokichi is seen on the right of the table.

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Sugoroku Magic – Unryu-kuro

Sugoroko Unryu-Kuro

Sugoroko image – No 21. Unryu-Kuro

This tremendous image of a magician floating on a magical cloud-dragon is the neighbour of the image of the Ghost of Seigen – the previous entry- from the stunning supernatural Sugoroku board we are showing at the Toshidama Gallery… the swirling clouds of the dragon in fact support the struggling figures of Sakura and Seigen on the complete print.

The subject is a little known magician; Unryu-kuro. In this context the first name in fact simply means ‘Cloud-dragon‘… the second part of the name refers to the summoner, here seen riding in heroically clutching a sacred sword wrapped in richly embroidered cloth. There are two other prints that feature this character that I am aware of; the earliest that I can find occurs in one of the best Edo print series by the artist Kunisada; A Contest of Magic Scenes by Toyokuni, from 1863/1864.

Kunisada; Kawarazaki Gonjūrō I as Unryū Kurō

Kunisada; Kawarazaki Gonjūrō I as Unryū Kurō. 1864

He reappears in one of Kunichika’s best series, Magic in the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac from 1877. In that print, Kunichika pictures the actor Bando Hikosaburo V as Unryu Kuro closely following the Kunisada print of the same subject.

Kunichika Magic in the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac: Dragon - The actor Bando Hikosaburo V as Unryu Kuro

Kunichika. Magic in the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac: Dragon – Unryu Kuro, 1877.

Unryu Kuro is also the main character in the novel Unryu Kuro Chutoden by the well known Edo comic novelist Rakutei Saiba. The book appeared in two volumes in 1858 and two pages from the original ehon are shown below:

Unryu Kuro Chutoden

Pages from Unryu Kuro Chutoden. 1858




There is no record of a kabuki performance of the book or indeed the character and hence putting the actor in the guise of the magician is purely fanciful.


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Sugoroku Magic – The Ghost of Seigen

The Priest Seigen and Princess Sakura.

The Priest Seigen and Princess Sakura.

The picture above is the first detail in our series taken from the stunning supernatural Sugoroku board showing at the Toshidama Gallery. It is a sort of compendium  of ghosts, magicians, magic creatures and so on. This is the ‘last square’ – the top left corner and it shows the ghost of the wicked priest Seigen attempting to make off with Princess Sakura.

The story derives from the kabuki drama Saruka hime which premiered in Edo in 1817. Seventeen years before the play opens, when teh character Seigen is the abbot of Hasedera Temple in Kamakura, he falls in love with a young novice, Shiragikumaru. The priest and his protege make a suicide pact flinging themselves off a cliff but although the boy drowns, Seigen survives.

Kuniyoshi. Ogura One Hundred Poets #29: Shiragikumaru, 1845 - 1847.

Kuniyoshi. Ogura One Hundred Poets #29: Shiragikumaru, 1845 – 1847.

When Princess Sakura comes to the temple to enroll as a novice nun, Seigen recognizes her immediately as the female reincarnation of Shiragikumaru and falls in love with him/her all over again. Seigen is unaware that a year beforehand, Sakurahime was raped by a bandit named Gonsuke (who has a temple bell tattooed on his arm), who broke into her father’s house and killed her father and younger brother. Eventually she has a child by him in secret. Sakura encounters Gonsuke once again at the temple and, recognizing him because of his tattoo, falls strangely, madly in love.

By the second half of the drama, Sakurahime (Princes Sakura) has been expelled after being caught with Gonsuke, while Seigen’s attachment to her is so intense that — even after he has been killed by a jealous monk — his ghost roams around, bearing her illegitimate child with him.

Kunisada. Onoe Kikugoro III as the Ghost of the Obsessed Monk Seigen. 1852

Kunisada. Onoe Kikugoro III as the Ghost of the Obsessed Monk Seigen. 1852

Sakurahime becomes an exile, falling into decline  and finally ending up being sold into prostitution by her lover, Gonsuke. Only at the end, reminded by Seigen’s ghost that Gonsuke is in fact the man who ruined her entire family, is she able to exact her revenge.



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Magical Sugoroku

Magical Sugoroku Board

Kunichika, Magical Sugoroku Board 1860’s

Toshidama Gallery has been fortunate to acquire a very fine, six sheet  sugoroku print of Supernatural characters by Kunichika from the late 1860’s. The print will go up on our website at the beginning of July, but the piece itself is such a good compendium of Japanese magicians and stories that it seems a good opportunity to look at the individual stories as they appear here. Over the next week or two we shall look at the deeds of the most famous of these heroes and heroines of the kabuki stage and the old folk tales. Of course, lots of these names appear in modern day manga and anime games and cartoon strips.

The kabuki plays from which this derives its subject matter were a mix of traditional folk tales, novels, epics and heavily embroidered accounts of recent events. Despite the fact the these were expensively produced and drawn by the leading artists of the day, these board games were popular objects, designed to be played with… hence in fact very few survive and notably not in this condition.

The game is played in a similar way to western snakes and ladders. A dice is thrown and players are moved about the board. The rules to some of the many variations of the game are now lost, as indeed are many of the minor roles and characters that appear in the windows. The design is a sophisticated series of collaged scenes, giving the appearance of a vertical stage whereby the actors can interact with each other. Hence looks are exchanged left and right and up and down but in fact the personalities are separated – sometimes by centuries and by authors, spaces and settings, real life or imagined. What unites all of them is the influence of the supernatural world.

A celebration of Kunichika’s work is at the Toshidama Gallery online from early July

Posted in ghosts, Kunichika, Magical, Sugoroku, supernatural Japanese print, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments