Kunichika and the Japanese Firemen


Kunichika (1835-1900)  Ichikawa Kuzo III as Kinmon Tatsugoro (centre) in Kami no Megumi Wagô no Torikumi, 1864

It is always problematic to say for sure in any print, which play, which actor, which role is pictured. What with so many dramas and so many roles in so many different kabuki plays, sometimes, you can just get it wrong!

Kunichika_The_Two_Butterflies_D.jpgI had attributed the play in this print to the famous Two Butterflies (Diary of the Licensed Quarters) by playwright Takeda Izumo II (and Amy Reigle Newland makes the same attribution on page 75 of Time Past and Time Present: Images of a Forgotten Master, Hotei Publishing 1999). Looking a little more closely at the subject, I realised how misleading first assumptions  can be. The centre figure is the magnificently tattooed Kinmon Tatsugoro, played by the kabuki actor Ichikawa Kuzo III. He does indeed appear in the play Two Butterflies (Diary of the Licensed Quarters), Futatsu chocho iro no dekiaki. But he also appears in the related drama, Kami no Megumi Wagô no Torikumi by Takeshiba Kisui and that is more like the real subject of this print. The print fits the latter drama much better, the only problem being that the latter play was not premiered until thirty years after this print was published. It is possible that this print shows scenes or acts omitted from the original play or else it is another, related play entirely! To put matters straight, here is a brief synopsis and some explanation as to why one man is carrying a cart and the other a ladder!

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The Play Kami no Megumi by Kunimasa IV 1890

A sumo wrestler is invited to a party at a teahouse, a scuffle ensues between a group of firemen (tobi) and the group of sumo wrestlers (sumotori). But despite the best efforts of the firefighter’s boss, the ill feeling continues. Tatsugoro (centre) is a firefighter responsible for keeping the peace in the area, and as the play progresses, scene after scene of near fighting and brawling break out, each one kept in check by chance or intervention. In the final scenes, Tatsugoro pretends to back away from revenge against the troublesome sumo wrestlers, incurring as a result the scorn of his wife who thinks him a coward. In fact his firefighters are bluffing and secretly preparing for a huge staged fight. In the meantime the sumôtori are going through similar preparations on the street before the sumo house. They’ve heard of the tobi‘s plan to attack them there that day and they are all ready. The tobi group marches to the site and the tremendous brawl starts: the acrobatic and dynamic tobi against the heavy and powerful but slow-moving sumôtori.  Extraordinarily, the play was based on a true story of a well recorded fight of 1805, between a group of drunken firefighters of the Me brigade and a group of sumo wrestlers participating in a show of strength. The fight left one firefighter dead and nearly one hundred men injured.

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Kunisada III, 1890

This is the subject of the piece: the massive figure on the right of a sumo wrestler lifting a cart and the nimble fireman on the left, holding the tools of his trade – a ladder. Tatsugoro the mediator stands in between, holding a grappling hook that firemen used to tear down buildings. The play foregrounds popular anxieties… these two groups, the wrestlers and especially the firemen acted as de-facto police, gangsters, extortionists and peacekeepers in the still lawless streets of Edo in the nineteenth century. They not only started violence but also ended it. The fires in the dense wooden suburbs were so devastating and so frequent that the populace were entirely dependent on this group for survival. The firemen of Edo developed their gangland skills and matured into the Japanese gangsters that plague modern day Tokyo… complete with their full body tattoos.

The print is very popular, the illustration below is a shot of Asakusa Kabuki Street in Tokyo. It shows the last scene from the  play painted on the shutters of Okuyama Mairimachi. The play is particularly important for the area since Shinmon Tatsugoro was such a local celebrity.


Asakusa Kabuki Street in Tokyo

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
This entry was posted in firemen, Floating World, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Kunisada, Meiji Art, sumo, sumotori, Tattoo Art, tobi, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e art, utagawa and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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