Sugoroku Magic – Princess Yuki

Scan copy

Princess Yuki from a Sugoroku Board by Kunichika – 1860’s

The image above is the top centre panel from an amazing Sugoroku game board designed by the artist Toyoharu Kunichika in the 1860’s. You can see the whole board at the Toshidama Gallery website by clicking this link: Sugoroku Board.

The gallery gives plenty of information about the game and how the board works; these posts are about the individual squares and what they mean.

The Daimyo, Daizen is one  of the famous villains from kabuki theatre and one of the famous scenes in which he appears is the one pictured here, a tremendous game of go performed during the play, Kinkakuji.


A Scene from Gion Sairei Shinkoki

The image above is of the same scene from a contemporary performance. The website, kabuki A – Z provided the image. The powerful and wicked warlord – in the big wig – has killed the shogun and captured his mother. He lives in great luxury indulging his passion for the board game go. Tokichi arrives and challenges him to a game and wins… further challenges reveal Tokichi to be a master strategist. Princes Yuki – seen in the pictures above is a captive of Daizen, but she escapes his clutches by conjuring mice that she has drawn with her toes in the sand, commanding them to gnaw through the ropes that bind her. Tokichi it turns out has been sent to rescue her and kill the wicked Daizen.

A full account of the plot can be found at the terrific site kabuki21 . The presence of the scene on a sugoroku of magical scenes is presumably because Yuki-hime is a magician and conjurer a fact possibly signified by the spider web drawn in the background. Daizen is pictured on the left and Tokichi is seen on the right of the table.

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Sugoroku Magic – Unryu-kuro

Sugoroko Unryu-Kuro

Sugoroko image – No 21. Unryu-Kuro

This tremendous image of a magician floating on a magical cloud-dragon is the neighbour of the image of the Ghost of Seigen – the previous entry- from the stunning supernatural Sugoroku board we are showing at the Toshidama Gallery… the swirling clouds of the dragon in fact support the struggling figures of Sakura and Seigen on the complete print.

The subject is a little known magician; Unryu-kuro. In this context the first name in fact simply means ‘Cloud-dragon‘… the second part of the name refers to the summoner, here seen riding in heroically clutching a sacred sword wrapped in richly embroidered cloth. There are two other prints that feature this character that I am aware of; the earliest that I can find occurs in one of the best Edo print series by the artist Kunisada; A Contest of Magic Scenes by Toyokuni, from 1863/1864.

Kunisada; Kawarazaki Gonjūrō I as Unryū Kurō

Kunisada; Kawarazaki Gonjūrō I as Unryū Kurō. 1864

He reappears in one of Kunichika’s best series, Magic in the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac from 1877. In that print, Kunichika pictures the actor Bando Hikosaburo V as Unryu Kuro closely following the Kunisada print of the same subject.

Kunichika Magic in the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac: Dragon - The actor Bando Hikosaburo V as Unryu Kuro

Kunichika. Magic in the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac: Dragon – Unryu Kuro, 1877.

Unryu Kuro is also the main character in the novel Unryu Kuro Chutoden by the well known Edo comic novelist Rakutei Saiba. The book appeared in two volumes in 1858 and two pages from the original ehon are shown below:

Unryu Kuro Chutoden

Pages from Unryu Kuro Chutoden. 1858




There is no record of a kabuki performance of the book or indeed the character and hence putting the actor in the guise of the magician is purely fanciful.


Posted in Edo, Floating World, ghosts, Japanese Demon, japanese woodblock prints, Kunichika, Sugoroku, supernatural Japanese print, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e art, Woodblock print | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sugoroku Magic – The Ghost of Seigen

The Priest Seigen and Princess Sakura.

The Priest Seigen and Princess Sakura.

The picture above is the first detail in our series taken from the stunning supernatural Sugoroku board showing at the Toshidama Gallery. It is a sort of compendium  of ghosts, magicians, magic creatures and so on. This is the ‘last square’ – the top left corner and it shows the ghost of the wicked priest Seigen attempting to make off with Princess Sakura.

The story derives from the kabuki drama Saruka hime which premiered in Edo in 1817. Seventeen years before the play opens, when teh character Seigen is the abbot of Hasedera Temple in Kamakura, he falls in love with a young novice, Shiragikumaru. The priest and his protege make a suicide pact flinging themselves off a cliff but although the boy drowns, Seigen survives.

Kuniyoshi. Ogura One Hundred Poets #29: Shiragikumaru, 1845 - 1847.

Kuniyoshi. Ogura One Hundred Poets #29: Shiragikumaru, 1845 – 1847.

When Princess Sakura comes to the temple to enroll as a novice nun, Seigen recognizes her immediately as the female reincarnation of Shiragikumaru and falls in love with him/her all over again. Seigen is unaware that a year beforehand, Sakurahime was raped by a bandit named Gonsuke (who has a temple bell tattooed on his arm), who broke into her father’s house and killed her father and younger brother. Eventually she has a child by him in secret. Sakura encounters Gonsuke once again at the temple and, recognizing him because of his tattoo, falls strangely, madly in love.

By the second half of the drama, Sakurahime (Princes Sakura) has been expelled after being caught with Gonsuke, while Seigen’s attachment to her is so intense that — even after he has been killed by a jealous monk — his ghost roams around, bearing her illegitimate child with him.

Kunisada. Onoe Kikugoro III as the Ghost of the Obsessed Monk Seigen. 1852

Kunisada. Onoe Kikugoro III as the Ghost of the Obsessed Monk Seigen. 1852

Sakurahime becomes an exile, falling into decline  and finally ending up being sold into prostitution by her lover, Gonsuke. Only at the end, reminded by Seigen’s ghost that Gonsuke is in fact the man who ruined her entire family, is she able to exact her revenge.



Posted in Asian Art, Edo, Floating World, ghosts, japanese woodblock prints, Sugoroku, supernatural Japanese print, Toshidama Gallery., Uncategorized, Vintage Board Games | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Magical Sugoroku

Magical Sugoroku Board

Kunichika, Magical Sugoroku Board 1860’s

Toshidama Gallery has been fortunate to acquire a very fine, six sheet  sugoroku print of Supernatural characters by Kunichika from the late 1860’s. The print will go up on our website at the beginning of July, but the piece itself is such a good compendium of Japanese magicians and stories that it seems a good opportunity to look at the individual stories as they appear here. Over the next week or two we shall look at the deeds of the most famous of these heroes and heroines of the kabuki stage and the old folk tales. Of course, lots of these names appear in modern day manga and anime games and cartoon strips.

The kabuki plays from which this derives its subject matter were a mix of traditional folk tales, novels, epics and heavily embroidered accounts of recent events. Despite the fact the these were expensively produced and drawn by the leading artists of the day, these board games were popular objects, designed to be played with… hence in fact very few survive and notably not in this condition.

The game is played in a similar way to western snakes and ladders. A dice is thrown and players are moved about the board. The rules to some of the many variations of the game are now lost, as indeed are many of the minor roles and characters that appear in the windows. The design is a sophisticated series of collaged scenes, giving the appearance of a vertical stage whereby the actors can interact with each other. Hence looks are exchanged left and right and up and down but in fact the personalities are separated – sometimes by centuries and by authors, spaces and settings, real life or imagined. What unites all of them is the influence of the supernatural world.

A celebration of Kunichika’s work is at the Toshidama Gallery online from early July

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Collecting Japanese Woodblock Prints

Prints From the collection of Ruth Muschel and Gillies McKenna at Wolfson College, Oxford.

Kunisada Actor Portraits at Wofson College

Kunisada Actor Portraits

We attended the opening of an exhibition of Japanese prints from the private collection of ukiyo-e belonging to Ruth Muschel and Gillies McKenna at Wolfson College, Oxford last weekend. The exhibition runs throughout the summer of 2019 and exemplifies how a spectacular and visually ravishing collection of fine works can be methodically assembled over a lifetime of acquisition. Ruth and Gillies have been collecting Japanese prints for forty-five years and the collection, at least so far as it is hung here, shows a knowing and informed passion for the floating world of nineteenth century Japan.

In his introduction to the show, Professor McKenna described how he and Ruth Muschel happened upon a print by Kunisada in a Brooklyn yard sale and gradually – as much through chance finds as intention – the collection also began to develop. This is so much the case for many collectors. Enthusiasts are driven by the ‘scent’ of a print as much as by the obligation to become a completist or indeed by major financial considerations. Japanese prints are by art auction standards still absurdly cheap. It is possible to be utterly moved by a print at the British Museum or the Art Institute Chicago and to acquire its identical twin for the price of a (admittedly expensive) shirt.

Hiroshige Prints at Wolfson College Oxford

Hiroshige Prints at Wolfson College Oxford

The selection is usefully divided into the principle genres of woodblock production. The first room has a tremendous hang of Kunisada actor portraits, (the prints throughout the whole show are sympathetically displayed  in frames supplied by a now defunct Philadelphia dealer) and it really did strike me how commanding these relatively commonplace items are when presented en masse. The other parts of the exhibition are devoted to landscape… dominated unsurprisingly by Hiroshige, Myth and monsters… ditto with Kuniyoshi and a thoughtful section on poetry with all three of the giants of nineteenth century ukiyo-e; Kunisada, Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige in series such as the 100 Ogura Poets.

There are some nice juxtapositions here; in the photograph above is the particularly pleasing comparison of Hiroshige’s startling print of Hakone from the Great Tokaido Road series hanging next to Kunisada’s outrageous crib of the same scene… this time with a Kunisada young female hovering in front.

Kunisada, The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido #11: Hakone 1838

Kunisada, The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido #11: Hakone 1838

There are many such pleasing juxtapositions. This is a thoughtful and beautifully hung exhibition. It shows how a tremendous and very personal collection can shine with, by the owners’ admission, relatively little in the way of investment. The exhibition was made possible by the encouragement of Sir Tim Hitchens, currently the President of Wolfson College, prior to that he was HM Ambassador to Japan. The show is at Wolfson College Oxford throughout the summer.



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War; Regret and Loss

Beisaku. The Bivouac of Japanese Troops, 1894.

Beisaku (1864 – 1903) Distant View of Fengtianfu: The Bivouac of Japanese Troops, 1894.

There’s been a great deal of media discussion about war in the UK press this week because it is the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day. War, conflict slaughter… sacrifice and duty, these are all common themes in Japanese prints. Martial events run through the art of Japan from its earliest days. In the West, mention of Japan is always met with samurai, or swords or Japanese arms and armour. Equally strongly though is the strength of poetry… thoughtful, scrutinising poetry… often war-like or at least written by men used to slaughter and yet moved by nature and thoughts of tenderness.

I happened across a fine Civil War poem by the American writer, Walt Whitman. The moment I read the piece I was transported so strongly to one of the great war prints of Japanese ukiyo-e that I can now no longer separate the two in my mind. The print by Beisaku, (illustrating a scene from the Sino-Japanese war 1894 – 95) shown above, quite perfectly evokes the sentiment and sense of place described by Whitman’s account of an American Civil War field hospital. The events he describes are presumably from the 1860’s. The poem is ‘By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame, and it appeared in 1865 in a collection called Drum Taps.

By the bivouac’s fitful flame,
A procession winding around me, solemn and sweet and slow – but
first I note,
The tents of the sleeping army, the fields’ and woods’ dim
The darkness lit by spots of kindled fire, the silence,
Like a phantom far or near an occasional figure moving,
The shrubs and trees, (as I lift my eyes they seem to be stealthily
watching me,)
While wind in procession thoughts, O tender and wondrous
Of life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of those
that are far away;
A solemn and slow provession there as I sit on the ground,
By the bivouac’s fitful flame.

Yoshitoshi,- Hida no Tatewaki Wearing a Red Wig. 1868

Yoshitoshi, Hida no Tatewaki Wearing a Red Wig, 1868

The print above… is by the great artist Taiso Yoshitoshi. It shows a fictional portrait of an historic warrior, Hida no Tatewaki. It comes from just a few years after the Whitman poem and deals with similar themes. It isn’t as descriptive of the poem as the uncannily apt Beisaku, but the print is a portrait of intense regret and I think of trauma. It’s from a very rare and sought after series of sixty-nine prints that depict the artist’s impressions of the aftermath of a violent battle. The inspiration is a set of drawings made after a visit to the site of the massacre that closed the upheavals of the 1868 revolution and ushered in the new Meiji Restoration. Yoshitoshi witnessed first hand the mutilated corpses, the smoking ruination and the traumatised victors and survivors. In many of the prints, men stagger with severed heads or else drip with splashed gouts of blood. The blankness in this face – and it is the face of an American soldier… not a Japanese fighter in a wig as it is conventionally known – is expressive of shock and trauma and not the rush of victory, the face of…

…life and death, of home and the past and loved, and of those
that are far away;

Kiyochika .Taira no Tadanori About to Sleep Under a Cherry Tree, 1884

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Taira no Tadanori About to Sleep Under a Cherry Tree, 1884

The above example is a coming together of these sentiments in a print by Kobayashi Kiyochika. It is of Taira no Tadanori resting beneath a cherry tree. His armour is stacked behind him; the astonishing trunk of the cherry tree rears up in the foreground of the leading two sheets. Taira no Tadanori (1144–1184) was the brother of Taira no Kiyomori, and one of his generals in the Genpei War against the Minamoto. He was killed in the Battle of Ichi-no-Tani.

Tadanori is the titular character in a Noh play by Zeami; in the play, his spirit returns to the mortal world to plead for recognition for having authored a famous poem. According to the legend, a poem was found in his quiver after his death. The poem reads:

Were I, still travelling as night falls, to make a sheltering tree my inn, then would my host tonight be the blossoms themselves?

Kiyochika assembles these fragments… the armour of the warrior, the sheltering tree, night falling, the falling blossoms, the quiver… in a moving composition that commemorates the warrior and the poet.

Themes in Japanese Woodblock Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery during June 2019.

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Posted in Asian Art, Japanese Art, Japanese Art Gallery, Japanese Poetry, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kiyochika, Male Tragedy, Male Tragedy in Japanese Prints, Meiji Art, musha-e, senso-e, Sino-Japanese War, ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized, yoshitoshi | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Pirate Chief Kezori Kyuemon

The Pirate Chief Kezori Kyuemon

Kunichika. The One Hundred Roles of Ichikawa Danjuro IX: The Pirate Chief Kezori Kyuemon, 1894.

What an amazing image this is… its a fabulous woodblock print by the nineteenth century artist Kunichika and it depicts the great actor of the kabuki theatre, Ichikawa Danjuro IX as the Pirate Chief Kezori Kyuemon from the play, Hakata Kojorô Nami Makura. The role became synonymous with Danjuro, who made the grand styling of the final pose of Act 1 his own. This typical bravura is what Kunichika captures here in this terrific, unique portrait… a great masterpiece in fact of kabuki portraiture.

The play is derived from a true story and concerns the travails of the merchant Soshichi, travelling by boat to Kyoto. He is aboard the (unbeknownst to him) pirate boat commanded by Danjuro’s Kezori. It is this extended first act which gives the play its drama. The stage is a great cloth ocean and the boat pivots against it, turning to and from the audience. The special effects and Danjuro’s outrageous performance are the attraction. Well, Soshichi witnesses the smuggling, is thrown overboard, but makes it to his date with his prostitute lover in Kyoto and becomes one of Kezori’s gang, his girlfriend pledging him her love. The cartouche on the right hand of the print reads: the colour of the waves at Hakata is light blue.

The play was hugely popular and is still performed in Tokyo to this day… strangely to western eyes starring a descendant of Danjuro’s also called Ichikawa Danjuro. The picture below is another rendering of the play, this time by the artist Kunisada. This woodblock print is from 1852 and is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Portrait of Keori by Kunisada 1852

The story is actually based on the events of a succesful merchant, Ito Kozaemon who became rich through illegal smuggling operations and was, as in the play, found out by chance. Kozaemon was executed despite being the most important merchant in that part of Japan.

The Kunichika portrait is on sale at the Toshidama Gallery for £300. There is a 10% discount for gallery newsletter subscribers this month. The print is in outstandingly good condition, very clean and very fresh… the surface is richly and thickly coated in mica and the paper is deeply embossed with textures… it’s a fabulous thing, a great design and phenomenal print quality.

Posted in Edo, Floating World, Ichikawa Danjuro, Japanese Art, Japanese Art Gallery, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunichika, Meiji Art, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized, utagawa | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment