We’re kicking off 2022, the year of the tiger, with an appropriate item. This beautiful print is chosen by Arendie Herwig-Kempers, collector of Japanese Kabuki prints and former SJA secretary.
The troublesome Covid period calls for courage, determination and bravery. Who could give a better example than Watōnai, who controlled a tiger with his bare hands?
The hero depicted, is of mixed ancestry, half-Chinese and half-Japanese. His outlandishness is hinted at by the red pyjama with yellow studs, buttoned up till the neck. In his right hand he keeps a box wrapped in paper with the text Daijingū, and in his left hand he holds a formidable sword. His face is painted with red stripes, and his wild hairdo is controlled by a bow, knitted in a way to resemble rabbit’s ears. He wears an apron, like a sumo wrestler, with a fringe of straw. The tiger is not happy, showing his teeth. You can almost hear him roar.
The scene is from a Kabuki play about a legendary pirate of mixed descent, who badly wanted to reinstall China’s Ming dynasty on the throne as they were under attack from the Manchu’s.
The story goes that Watōnai and his family crossed the sea to China to fulfil their secret mission. To avoid attention the father walked ahead alone, and Watōnai, carrying his mother, took the road through a bamboo forest. Suddenly a tiger came growling at them, hunted by group of regional Tartars. The animal was ready to jump upon both, but our hero quickly put his mother down and started to defend them in a brutal fight. At the start things did not develop favourably, so the mother quickly handed her son a powerful charm in a box, from the Grand Shrine in Ise. The tiger suddenly got rather meek, and put his head down. The Tartars then launched an attack and wanted to kill the animal. Watōnai fought back, now helped by the tiger. After the battle the survivors vowed allegiance, shaved their foreheads and took Japanese names. All’s well that ends well.
Woodblock print, design by Kunisada (1786–1864), ōban (38 x 25,3 cm), published in Edo by Nishimura Yohachi, 1816.