Arashi Kichisaburô III as Tôken Gonbei, Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Danshichi Kurobei, and Iwai Kumesaburô III as Yakko no Koman (1859)

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About the Art

On a dark backdrop by the cherry blossom tree, three actor warriors look to each other.

In lavishly decorated kimono, with hair in the traditional otokodate warrior style, these heroes valiantly clutch at their swords. The title of this triptych reads right to left. So on the left is Yakko no Koman, in the centre is Danshichi Kurobei and on the right is Tôken Gonbei. 

This Kabuki play, "A Contemporary Suikoden" refers to the semi-historical Chinese novel, ‘Suikoden’, which is also referred to as "The Water Margin". The original story has been likened to the English tale of Robin Hood and documents the adventures of 108 rebel warriors who lived in the marshlands of Liangshan. These outlaws sought to protect the poor from injustices and are archetypes of the 'otokodate'; sometimes referred to as "street knights" or "chivalrous commoners". The early Edo period was seen as lawless, as the low-ranking Samurai ruled over the working classes. But this is an idea that was most-likely dramatised in kabuki plays. 

The otokodate were a gang of tough fighters, who made a living by gambling and are the predecessors to the 'yakuza'; the Japanese mafia. Like all Kabuki plays, Tôsei suikoden is a dramatised story surrounding real life society. It embodies the social resentment between classes and was a popular folktale that poked harmless fun at the ruling class. 

Among the 108 famed Water Margin heroes, three of them were women. Here you can see the beautiful Yakko no Koman, whose kimono symbolizes her character. The cherry blossoms signify beauty and new beginnings, the green represents youth and vitality, red signifies glamour and a youthful allure, and purple is a metaphor for undying love. 

Take a closer look at Danshichi Kurobei and notice his striking lobster tattoo. Tattoos, or 'irezumi', were used in kabuki as a popular narrative device to represent the role or the scene they’re in. Danshichi’s role is of a fishmonger, which is why the lobster design features on his arm. Danshichi was based on a real person who murdered a man and hid the body in the snow. As spring came, the snow melted and the body was discovered. On the kimono of Tôken Gonbei, notice the phoenix illustration, this traditionally signifies wealth and good fortune, but is also used on wedding kimonos.

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