Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan IV as Daihachi and Onoe Kikugoro V as Tatsugoro

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Nakamura Shikan IV as Daihachi and Onoe Kikugoro V as Tatsugoro, 1890. Oban triptych.

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This terrific fight scene, featuring the tattooed Onoe Kikugoro V as the fireman Tatsugoro is from the play Megumi no Kenka. The play revived a real life event; the mass brawl involving the firefighters of the Me brigade of firemen and a group of sumo wrestlers participating in a show of strength. The fight left one firefighter dead and nearly one hundred men injured.

The setting of the play (and actual brawl) is the Shinto temple known as the Shimmei Shrine - now the Shiba Shinmeigu.  The Tori gate of the shrine - still visible today - is pictured as the background to the two battling figures. The play was written as a vehicle for the actor Onoe Kikugoro V, later known as Baiko, who was one of the handful of kabuki superstars of the Meiji era.

The play describes how over  a series of encounters, a grudge develops between a group of Edo firefighters and a clan of sumo wrestlers. Both social groups were loved and feared by the townspeople. The firemen especially were instrumental in keeping order in the densely populated streets of the city.

The action centres on Daihachi (right) a popular sumo who is involved in an initial altercation with the leader of a firemen’s gang, Tatsugoro (left). They spend the four acts of the play nearly coming to blows and finally the firefighters encroach on the temple precinct at the close of a bout in order to settle their grievances, (which ultimately is a confrontation between the firefighters, who represent the commoner class and the samurai patrons of the sumo wrestlers). The human interest if there is much, is on the character of Tatsugoro and his leaving of his wife and daughter… tricking his wife into divorce to save her from shame, as he prepares to fight to the death.

This is all averted by the intervention of a brave gang-lord who comes between the two factions, wearing the colours and symbols of each side. There are several prints of the subject, notably one by the artist Yoshitoshi from 1886. A further explanation and background is available at the Toshidama Gallery blog.

A terrific print, a subtle tattoo on the left figure and delicate shaded printing imitating a wash effect in  the background. Colour and impression are superb, condition is excellent allowing for some slight marking in the background.

73 x 36 cm.