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Kawarazaki Gonjuro I as Gorō Tokimune (1860)

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About the Art

Striking an intense 'mie pose',the actor is fixated on something in the distance,dressed in exquisite robes of fluttering butterflies against the idyllic springtime scenery. 

In one of the most popular and momentous kabuki tales, this image comes from the play, "The Illustrated Tale of the Soga Brothers”. Originating from the 12th century, it’s regarded as the last of the "great war tales" and centres on the vendetta of two young brothers; Soga Jūrō Sukenari and SogaGorō Tokimune.  

When the Soga brothers were infants, their father was murdered in a private quarrel over land rights. They grew up with the sole purpose of avenging his death and trained themselves to become highly skilled Samurai fighters. Eighteen years after their father’s murder, the brothers heard word that their enemy, Suketsune, was close by on a hunting trip. Waiting for the cover of night, the brothers crept into his tent and killed him, causing a wild and violent uproar. Suketsune’s men killed Jūrō;Gorō escaped, but was later captured and executed.

Although a tragic tale that results in the death of all the main characters, this Kabuki story was in fact seen positively; as a story where family honour has been restored.

An interesting contrast in this piece lies in the symbolism. Look to Gorō’s kimono and note the beautifully illustrated butterfly pattern. Butterflies in Japan are regarded as being the souls of the living and the dead, and in embroidery represent joy and longevity in life. However, the 'Sakura' tree (cherry blossom) that coils behind the actor is a common symbol of short-lived, transient beauty – an interesting dichotomy in this print.

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