Kunichika, E-sugoroku Board of a Teahouse in the Yoshiwara

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) E-sugoroku Board of a Teahouse in the Yoshiwara, Mid - 1860’s. Six Sheet Panel.

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This huge print made from six oban sheets is probably a type of E-sugoroku board game. 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 complicated series of rooms and corridors on different floors, whereby the customers and the entertainers can interact with each other. Hence looks are exchanged left and right and up and down but in fact the different people are trapped in a strange ‘Escher-’ like perspective much like a crazy house at the fair. The effect is the result of using Chinese and Japanese ‘perspective’ in some areas… a kind of aerial view; and a western perspective in others. For example the scene in the upper centre portion uses a conventional western space whilst the customers on the adjacent sheet are tipped into a wholly different spatial void!

No matter. All of this actually sophisticated spatial manipulation serves (intentionally) to open up this Yoshiwara ‘tea house’ like a child’s doll-house. We the viewers are suspended in mid air, the front of the building whipped away and the life of the interior exposed. And what a life. Tea houses were places of assignation and entertainment. As a game board, we can start at the bottom left, enjoying a pleasant bath and back scrub - note that this is Edo not Meiji bathing and mixed baths are acceptable. From there we could help ourselves to the exotic snacks and rice cakes, served by the child waitresses and house maids… the dining area is set with hot tea and other snacks and further along we see a glimpse of prostitutes like so many caged animals behind slatted wooden bars. On the floor above, male waiters carry huge trays laden with more cakes and snacks, whilst friends carry a drunken partner towards the exit. In the centre of the upper floor courtesans or geisha entertain clients with a stringed instrument called a shamisen, whilst patrons lounge at low tables drinking saki. Off to the left men and women come and go having sex behind paper screens… this is not a shunga piece and the performers are discreet, yet the activity is obvious. This print, itself possibly an advertisement for a particularly prosperous establishment, is selling a dream to overworked, stressed and struggling middle class men. In that very little has changed!

This house is surely a place of escape and of beauty. The design… timber and paper screens, beautifully jointed wooden beams, painted screens… order and Confucian values - luxe calme et volupté as Matisse may have it. How lovely is that mature  pine tree, making its way from the ground floor to the rafters or the courtyard gardens on the left with their stone lanterns and lush green vegetation.

This is a very good print indeed. It is from the same collection as the 'mythical heroes' Sugoroku in this selection. The print 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. Unusually, the folder in which it was originally sold is intact - also beautifully printed and embossed, with an image of a courtesan and a child - and an image of it can be seen by clicking the link above.  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.

60 x 70 cm.