Kunichika, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, 1864. Five Oban Sheets.

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In this five sheet print, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku we see a vast crowd of famous actors in well known roles crowding up the steps of a temple; in fact I think we can safely say that it is the steps to the Gokuraku-ji Temple in Kyoto - the red timber structures of the temple gate are crammed into the top right sheet. The actors rush towards the figure of Nippon Daemon who is the character in the black fright wig at the top of the steps holding a blue box.

Sugoroku is a traditional Japanese board game similar to snakes and ladders. The genre quickly became popular in nineteenth century Japan and the boards became crowded with images of famous kabuki actors instead of places on the board. Over time the games became unplayable; the boards were simply too crowded and the game too indistinct and hence these lavish sheets of prints came to stand in (like so much in Edo culture) for something else… a vehicle to stimulate kabuki fans.

It needs to be remembered here that the actors and artists we are looking at were heavily persecuted in a series of censorship laws from 1844 onwards called the ‘Tenpo Reforms’. These laws were aimed at cleaning up the loose morals of the townspeople. Actors were considered immoral and decadent; and woodblock prints, which were often highly pornographic, or else used imagery from the theatre, were also subject to outlandish restrictions. Laws were passed limiting the size of a print, the number of colours used, the subjects that were allowed and so on. Famous artists such as Kuniyoshi were imprisoned and actors were bankrupted and stripped of their possessions and exiled.

This print dates from 1864 when the restrictions were eased but nevertheless the habit of disguising actor prints persisted in a kind of cat and mouse game with the authorities. What we have then is a great big fan poster of the most famous actors and the favourite roles they might play, all set on the steps of a temple… the very temple in fact that is the finale of one of the most popular plays of the time, Benten Kozo. Benten Kozo tells the story of Nippon Daemon, a robber and gang leader who is chased by the police to the temple at Gokuraku-ji. The transition to the next scene is likely one of the largest, and most famous stage tricks in kabuki. The entire roof of the stage set tilts backwards and out of the way, revealing Nippon Daemon standing on a veranda within the temple gate.

Everything in the composition leads our eye up the steps to this great kabuki hero/villain. But this is more than just a celebration of a popular antihero; the hard to translate title of the print, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, means, "the lovely flowers climbing the board game"… the word "flowers" in this context is commonly used to denote actors or well loved people, hence "The Flowers of Edo" was a popular title for series of actor prints (Here Edo refers to the old medieval name of present day Tokyo and the culture that it spawned). This print is a kind of primer for kabuki lovers. The steps of the temple are littered with small cursive kanji, each giving the names of the adjacent actor and role.

The print is featured alongside some tremendous research into the names of the actors and the characters at the site of the Lyon Collection of Japanese Prints

The print has been exhibited most recently in London at springseason Gallery, an exhibition of contemporary artists responding to this particular example of ukiyo-e. The five sheets are lined… conservation mounted onto Japanese paper. The set is museum quality conserved and framed behind UV resistant glass in a hardwood profile.

This is a rare print, from early in Kunichika’s career and an early example of a rare format for sugoroku boards. Colour and impression are reasonable, the condition is fair (reflected in the price) and there are losses to the top edge. The print can be shipped, framed, within the UK only for an additional cost. Arrangements can be made to un-frame the piece for international shipping.

Published by Manzen (Yorozuya Zentaro)