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Three Kabuki Actors (1852)

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About the Art

In the dark of night three kabuki actors, robed in magnificent brocade costumes and skins, look to each other and prepare to fight. Clutching their weapons and expressing the intensely evocative 'mie pose' - the crossed-eyes - their emotion radiates.

Although unnamed, these prints most likely derive from the play "The Heroic Tales of Jiraiya". On the left is Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII playing the lead role of Jiraiya, in the centre is Arashi Rikan III in the role of Takasago Yûminosuke, and on the right is Ichikawa Kuzô III in the role of Orochimaru. A tale of honour, revenge and witchcraft, the name ‘Jiraiya’ translates literally to mean ‘young thunder’, Jiraiya originates from a Japanese folk story based around a character that rides a toad. This triptych is a 'Tachimawari', a fight scene, that is stylized to the point of becoming a dance and contains a bounty of symbolism. 

In the legend, Jiraiya seeks revenge for the death of his family by Orochimaru, a shapeshifter who can turn into a serpent and whose name translates to ‘giant snake’. Spending years hiding in a deep valley, Jiraiya trains to become a ninja and learns shapeshifting magic himself; the power of the giant toad. The beautiful maid Tsunade also trains, and learns the secret arts of the slug. During their training, their master tells them a story: a toad is more powerful than a slug, a slug is more powerful than a snake, and a snake is more powerful than a toad, so when all three come together to fight, there is no winner. This triangular balance of power is called 'sansukimi'. 

In Orochimaru’s kabuki villain make-up, or 'kumadori',  you can see black outlined eyes, suggestively drawn eyebrows and lines that downturn his mouth, exaggerating his evil features. The blue tinge is also suggestive of bad qualities; jealousy and fear. On the evil Orochimaru’s kimono are patterns of waves, symbols of an unstoppable tide, more often used on army banners to signify fighting strength. 

 On the kimono of Jiraiya are hexagons, which allude to the shell of a tortoise, signifying longevity, good fortune and strength and was often used in Samurai armour designs. On Yûminosuke’s robes are patterns of peonies, which were seen as ‘king of the flowers’ and are a symbol of high nobility and wealth.

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