The adjacent photograph shows a relatively new trend for very cheap, disposable tattoo sleeves… to what end, I’m not sure. I thought I’d try one on in the interests of researching the fashion in the kabuki theatre for representing heroes and villains illustrated in ukiyo-e prints and later imitated by huge numbers of men in Edo thereafter.
The fashion for elaborate full body tattoos starts with the great print artist Kuniyoshi in the late 1820’s with his momentous series depicting the Heroes of the Suikoden (Water Margin). Most experts agree that the designs for his fully inked heroes were invented by Kuniyoshi and had not existed before his illustrations were published in 1827. This of course makes him hugely important, especially given the international trend for elaborate tattoos that we see all around us today. The history of Japanese tattoos is well attested, and I have written on the subject elsewhere. I want to look here at the solution the kabuki theatre arrived at to represent these tattooed characters – hence the current experiment.
I never quite believed that stretched painted silk body suits would be entirely convincing. I was mistaken – the $3 novelty item actually worked very well, given that the colour and design were very crude. Oddly, the wearing of it created a minor transformation – I am ashamed to say that this included the flexing of muscles and posing in front of a mirror. I can well believe that a more elaborate and better designed suit of tattoos would bring about a powerful ‘in character’ transformation on stage. The above print commemorates a memorable event in kabuki theatre. A danmari is a slow, tense and highly stylised dance. In this case, the choreographed performance between two superstars of the kabuki theatre acting out the role of two heroes of the Suikoden, (water margin) a popular compendium of stories relating the activities of a gang of good hearted bandits in ancient China. The performances were a highlight of the 1886 season at the Shintomiza theatre in Tokyo, partly because of the extraordinary quality of the dance and also because of the dramatic staging and the lavish tattoos that covered the bared bodies of both performers. Danjuro on the left has dragons whilst Sadanji has cherry blossoms.
Kyumonryu Shishin is also called the nine dragoned (hence the tattoos), Kaosho Rochisin was a former military captain turned monk. In the dance and the print, the two super-heroes are fighting in the snow. It is a very fine and memorable print. Kunichika must have been very taken with the performance since he created several versions of the piece each nearly identical.
It seems as though these silk suits were also used to enhance other bodily attributes. The print on the left shows Ichikawa Danjuro as Arajishi Otokonosuke wrestling with the magician Nikki Danjo – here transformed into a rat. It is clear that Danjuro’s naturally slight frame has been beefed up with tattoo sleeves painted with exaggerated musculature, the bottom edge of the costume visible at the ankles.
Also illustrated here are very fetching versions for the contemporary disco available for women as well as men. For a few dollars it is now possible to transform anyone into a hero of the Suikoden, if only for one night.
Toshidama Gallery is showing prints of kabuki actors throughout July. All prints are for sale and if you join our monthly newsletter you can take advantage of generous discounts on all our prints.