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Nakamura Shikan IV as Nangô Rikimaru (1862)

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About the Art

Sneaking around a corner, under the cloak of a tiger’s skin,Nangô Rikimaru spies and plots his next move. 

This scene is a section from the play 'Benten Kozō', named after the leading character, and is based on the classic tale of "Five Men of the White Waves". The story centres around the lives of a group of bandits, the term ‘white waves’ meaning thieves. The five criminals in the play are based on real thieves from Edo period Osaka. A tale of extortion, disguise and trickery, Benten Kozō’s gang of thieves cheat and lie their way to money and ranks. 

An important scene in the play is named 'Hamamatsuya'.One day, two of the thieves, Benten and Rikimaru, visit a cloth shop disguised as a lady of high rank and her retainer. They cause a scene where the lady gets injured and blame it on the shop owner, forcing him to pay 100 ryô compensation. On their way out, they come across a samurai who had been listening in from the next room. He tells the shop owner that he’d been taken for a fool, and offers to cut off the heads of Benten and Rikimaru. In an important moment of the play, both thieves remove their disguises and reveal their identities. In fear of bad publicity, the shop owner decides to overlook the matter and even gives Benten a small sum to help fix his wound. 

Take a look atRikimaru’s kimono which is patterned with 'koushi'; a lattice with thick lines to represent power, and thin lines to represent elegance. His 'kumadori', or villain make-up, has a blue tint to it, commonly used by kabuki actors to suggest bad traits such as jealousy and fear, also reflected in the eyes of his tiger costume.

The bamboo tree that lies behindNangô symbolises steadfastness, perseverance and resilience. Although seen as criminals, the characters of the play are 'gizoku', or "honourable thieves", and the symbolism in their yakusha-e portraits reflect this.

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