One of the four great novels of Chinese literature, Heroes of the Water Margin was written in China in the early sixteenth century about a band of 108 outlaws who defied the Song dynasty government. They were eventually pardoned and subsequently defended the country against incursion from the Liao Dynasty. Of course as with all folk tales, truth and fantasy become co-mingled; hence, in the folklore rather than historical version of events, the 108 heroes are released from beneath a stone tortoise and succeeding chapters tell of their heroic bravery and trials of strength. The book was popular in China, eventually finding its way to Japan in the eighteenth century. It wasn’t until 1805 when the author Kyokutei Bakin published his own translation illustrated by Katsushika Hokusai that it attracted a level of popularity that we associate with contemporary mass media events.
In 1827 the woodblock print artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi was asked to produce a series of full colour prints illustrating the individual heroes. The publication of the series catapulted Kuniyoshi to instant fame and further fuelled a craze for all things Suikoden. Most strikingly, Kuniyoshi chose to give his heroes full body tattoos thereby starting almost overnight the craze for highly decorative tattooing that persists today.
Most of the great ukiyo-e artists produced versions of the Suikoden, or Water Margin, following the example of Kuniyoshi. Most notable is Yoshitoshi’s chuban series of 1867. Illustrated here is one of the Hokusai illustrations and one of the Kuniyoshi prints. It is conventional to say that Kuniyoshi is indebted to Hokusai for some of the design and detail of his illustrations but one should bear in mind that the publication of the translation was staggered over a thirty year period and Hokusai did not produce his illustrations until 1829, two years after Kuniyoshi published his series.
The cult of the Suikoden did not pass away with the demise of the Floating World. The tradition of Kuniyoshi-inspired tattoos is as popular today as ever it was. The story and much of the visual identity created by ukiyo-e artists has contributed to films, books and television series; however it is in the gaming world that it now has its most public face. The Playstation game Genso Suikoden takes the theme of heroes – 108 of them – and adopts similar themes of politics, super-natural struggle and heroic battles.
It’s strange such a specific story could persist and remain vital, reinventing itself through new media, for a thousand years. These themes and the prints illustrated here form part of our new exhibition; Heroes and Villains – Samurai Prints at Toshidama Gallery from March 4th 2011.