Toyokuni III Utagawa, Tosei Suikoden, Tattoo Design


Original Japanese woodblock print.

Artist: Toyokuni III Utagawa (1786-1865)
Title: Comparison of Japanese Heroes to the Suikoden
Series: Tosei Suikoden (Water Margin for Modern Times)
Publisher: Hayashiya Shogoro
Date: 1859
Dimensions: (L) 24.5 x 36 (C) 24.8 x 36.1 (R) 24.7 x 36.2 cm


The samurai class of Edo Period had yet to adjust to the daily routine of peacetime and grew frustrated with the loss of status and usefulness. Bored and idle, they frequently caused trouble in towns and were involved in street fights and robbery. At the same time, the commoner otokodate (street knights) were gaining confidence in their strength among the merchants and they were employed by clerks, shopkeepers, innkeepers, and artisans for protection. The samurai and the otokodate were thus natural rivals, and as each group banded together into teams under leaders, fierce and bloody clashes broke out frequently.


The otokodate were one of the main groups to adopt tattoos as a recognisable feature and they were idealised and romanticised in ukiyo-e and kabuki dramas. In this triptych, Toyokuni III depicts his own version of Suikoden, by comparing actors to famous heroes. The central figure, Banzui Chobei, is played by Ichikawa Danjuro VII, here under the name of Ebizo V. No tattoo is visible, but his kimono pattern of a carp in a waterfall could easily be a tattoo design as well. On the right-hand side panel, Yume no Ichirobei has a bat-winged dragon kimono and his arm is tattooed with a thunderbolt. On the left-hand side panel, Samezaya Shiroza wears a predatory eagle pattern on his kimono and his tattooed arm is decorated with cherry blossoms.

More Information
Print Format Triptych
Artist Name Toyokuni III Utagawa (Kunisada I)
Title Comparison of Japanese Heroes to the Suikoden
Subject Samurai & Male, Kabuki Theatre
Dimensions (L) 24.5 x 36 (C) 24.8 x 36.1 (R) 24.7 x 36.2 cm

Toyokuni III Utagawa (Kunisada I)

Kunisada became a pupil of Toyokuni at the age of 15, and would later, after the latter’s death, assume his name. Kunisada’s pictures reflect the culture of Japan in the years leading up to the country’s opening to the West. His first book illustrations were published in 1807 and his first actor portrait the following year. Alongside theatrical scenes and courtesans, yakusha-e was his preferred genre amidst all his popular and extensive output. As he painted very many of these, continuing the stout realism of his teacher, he acquired the sobriquet “Yakusha-e no Kunisada” – Kunisada, the actor painter. In his numerous bijin-ga he clung to the deal of beauty prevalent at the time. While his style must be described as powerful and realistic, even coarsely so, his draughtsmanship and coloration are if anything monotonous and lacking finesse. From 1830 he continued the development of the Utagawa school, and from 1844 onwards signed his works Toyokuni III.