The Toshidama Gallery is showing a collection of prints featuring aggressive and violent folk heroes and warlords. The selection looks at how the populace of Edo expressed their frustration with the government and with the increasingly corrupt samurai class. As a consequence, they lionised not only heroic ‘social-justice-warriors’ like Du Qian (above) but also the most reprehensible hooligans like An no Heibei and Hotei Ichiemon, below.
Du Quian was one of the Chinese Heroes of the Water Margin, 108 rebels who sought refuge in the margins of Liangshan Marsh in the 12th century. These rebel warriors sought to protect the poor and downtrodden, very much like Robin Hood’s band of outcasts in medieval England. In fact they were probably far more terrifying and considerably less altruistic than they are portrayed. Kuniyoshi here shows the collossal strength of the legendary hero… literally assaulting the walls of power – an appropriate meme for our times!
Less noble by far is the story of the two characters in the Kunisada print above. These young men were hooligans from the infamous Band of Seven, who became the legendary Five Men of Naniwa, their hapless, ruinous lives of ignominy transformed by eager playwrights into heroic men fighting for their own freedom, the liberty of their streetwalker fiancés and of course for common decency. Once safely out of the way – they were beheaded at the execution grounds in 1702 for stabbing and robbing an innocent shopkeeper – their lives were rehabilitated, conflated with heroes like the Soga Brothers and their images commemorated on woodblock prints and souvenirs. The awful reality of their ends can be seen on this page at the website Japanthis.
The handsome Yoshitoshi above picks up a similar theme… In 1849, there were two gambling rings led by rival gangsters. The toughest was led by Lioka Sukegoro. The smaller led by Hanzo Sukegoro. Yoshitoshi’s series glorifies the struggle between these two gangs and commemorates the individual gang members – such as Yukichi above – and devotes an entire sheet to each man. The details of their lives would have been available in the broadsheets of the time and the populace considered them tremendous heroes. The feud continued to be a favourite story going as far as being made into a movie – The Tale of Zatoichi – in 1962!
Benten is another such anti-hero, superbly realised in Yoshitoshi’s very early and very rare print of 1862. A kabuki drama, loosely based in fact describes the usual hapless journey from petty thieving to accidental violence via the inevitable street-walker girlfriend and final showdown with the authorities. Benten kozo appears in the play, Aoto Zôshi Hana no Nishikie, which premiered in 1862. There followed a flurry of woodblock prints and it is instructive to compare the Yoshitoshi below to the Kunisada to which it bears an obvious similarity.
Let’s not think that it’s only men who are capable of extreme violence! The Toshidama Gallery exhibition is also showing another Yoshitoshi of the warrior heroine Tomoe Gozen, seen despatching the Taira warrior Musashi Saburoemon Arikuni in a fight from the northern campaign of Minamoto no Yoshinaka during the Genpei Wars of the late twelfth century. For these prints and others on this theme, visit the Toshidama Gallery from 27th September for one month.