Kunichika, E-sugoroku of Supernatural Heroes

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) E-sugoroku of Supernatural Heroes, Mid-1860’s. Six Sheet Panel.

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This is a tremendous find. A beautifully preserved full size print of the traditional Japanese board game, e-Sugoroku. It is an outstandingly good, deluxe production. The individual squares are embossed, over-printed, shaded… exactly like an Edo period ukiyo print. The board is a compendium of popular supernatural kabuki and folklore characters. Just the sorts of heroes and villains that an Edo citizen would see at the theatre during a typical season.

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 that 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, up and down but in fact the personalities are separated - sometimes by centuries and by authors, spaces and settings, real life or imagined.

A (more or less) reasonable identification of the characters can be made and we will be posting a guide to the figures on our blog over the next week or so. To fill out the piece a little more... we can see the ghost of the Priest Seigen and Princess Sakura tussling in the top left square, next to them, sharing a supernatural smoke cloud is the warrior magician, Unryu kurou descending on the dragon that he has summoned. Next to him is a scene occupying two squares taken from the drama, Kinkakuji showing the warlord Daizen battling over a giant go board. His neighbour is the great hero Jiraiya riding a toad and Jiraiya appears again at potentially the final destination on the board, the double square at the bottom where we see him redeeming his fortune from the court official, Yuminosuke. There are an exceptional number of highly detailed scenes involving the Edoist obsession with animism - mirrors, swords, scrolls, waterfalls and animal magic… bats, snails and spiders; all abound.

This print is a minor masterpiece, measuring 72 x 71 cm. It has been very beautifully preserved, expertly conservation mounted on archival paper to a museum standard, presumably at great expense. The piece also comes with a very beautiful, lacquered Japanese frame also of a very high standard. It has therefore in recent years been treasured and looked after and as a consequence is in outstanding condition. The colour is very good with some fairly minor fading, the impression is fine with deluxe embellishments. It would seem that no other copies of this print are known to have survived. The frame is available for an extra price of £150 plus UK delivery.

The print has been expertly scanned at high resolution and copies of those scans are available.

72 x 71 cm.