Most Japanese prints stick to a limited range of formats: oban, oban triptych, chuban and so on. Very occasionally one comes across huge six-sheet prints crammed with figures, quite different to the normal run of prints. These large format prints are gaming boards for the Japanese equivalent of snakes and ladders or backgammon, an ancient game called sugoroku. Yamamoto Masakatsu, a leading expert and collector of sugoroku makes the point:
Foreign sugoroku are recognised as antiques or historical records but few are worth handing down to posterity as art objects. Why were Japanese sugoroku so good? In answer we cannot forget the links between sugoroku and ukiyo-e. Surimono (limited edition poem prints) are highly valued in Japan and overseas, I am sure that Edo era sugoroku are at least equal to surimono in quality.
Sugoroku has its origins in 13th century China and, like its European equivalents, is a game partly of luck and partly of skill. In the Japanese version of the game, the element of luck came to lend a quasi-mystical level of divination. The game has a closer although obscure Italian cousin called Y Goose (left) which was played there in the 15th century – there is a suggestion that this pictorial version of the game had some influence in Japan in later centuries. There are other versions of Sugoroku which are similar to backgammon. The popularity of this ‘true’ sugoroku waned with the introduction of picture sugoroku in the nineteenth century; these games are properly called e-sugoroku.
Sugoroku was traditionally played around New Year and although it was often a gift to young girls, the game was enjoyed by the whole family. The rules are similar to snakes and ladders: a throw of the dice advances your piece along the rows of figures or places (there are for example Tokaido Road sets) from the starting point (furidashi) until the final character or square is reached (agari). There are rules within the practice which make it more interesting: a throw of a one means a player must miss a go, a two forces the player back to the start, a three allows a player to skip some places. Sugoroku was considered educational, partly because boards were designed with travel themes, Buddhist themes, history themes and so on; but also because the successes and vicissitudes were seen somehow to reflect life’s hardships and good fortune. The game became popular during the Edo period precisely because of the aptness of woodblock prints and artists to create memorable pieces – it is for this reason that they are now so collectible and show how an artist could arrange a composition outside of the normal ukiyo-e formats and conventions; but although the boards (paper only in fact) were looked after, only a few survive to this day. The game continued to be popular during the twentieth century and was used as propaganda during the various Japanese wars of that period. Like so many games, it has suffered since the widespread use of computer technology although there are digital versions of sugoroku available.
The western game of snakes and ladders though has its origins in India and derives from a traditional Hindu game called Jnani Bagi (The Game of Heaven and Hell) which was designed to teach the virtues of the Jain religion. Illustrated is a late 18th century board which is about 18 inches square, divided into eight rows and nine columns, its ladders being in the traditional Jain colours of red and yellow. The longest ladder reaches from square 17 (Compassionate Love) to 69 (The World of the Absolute). Of course British Imperialists took the essence of the game and reinterpreted it with Victorian values of duty, probity and morality.
One of the most prolific sugoroku artists of the nineteenth century was Toyohara Kunichika and there are several known designs by him from the mid 1860’s. All known Kunichika sugoroku are of kabuki actors in heroic roles. These boards act as a kind of beginner’s guide to the kabuki theatre. Toshidama Gallery has one such board that is in good condition and allows us to see all of the twenty or so figures illustrated at the top. Called Heroes of the Mountain Gate, the action of the disparate characters is set against a temple (or kabuki) backdrop borrowed from Kunisada’s vertical diptych of Ishikawa Goemon in the play Sanmon Gosan no Kiri. We can see that Kunichika has taken the two figures verbatim from the print and placed them in position in the lower and middle register. Goeman (a famous thief and bandit chief) is the fierce figure in the black wig; his opponent is the slight character with the water dipper. They maintain their relationship despite the furious activity going on around them. Elsewhere on the print male and female kabuki characters do the same thing, lending the piece a curious connectivity amongst the chaos.
Also illustrated below is another, later version from 1869 in similar format with a slightly different cast of characters. For those interested in sugoroku I recommend this very good educational site on the subject.