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.
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:
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: