The Magic of Go
Go brings out best in ukiyo-e artists

Go brings out best in ukiyo-e artists

This is the first of the two-part series by Richard Bozulich, writer of «The Magic of Go» column and collector of the art on the game of go as depicted in ukiyo-e.

Go has a long and legendary history that has enthralled Japanese artists whose works reveal how the game permeated Japan’s cultural life. Although artists were inspired by go to work in other forms, such as wood, ivory and clay, it is in ukiyo-e woodblock prints where the depiction of go is most frequently found.

The Japanese public tended to be conservative in its taste, relishing the familiar over the new. Most artists, therefore, worked in set forms and drew upon a limited and widely shared repertoire of subjects. Woodblock prints of the ukiyo-e school drew upon a deep pool of associations and allusions to which literature, legend, philosophy, and history each contributed. They gave the people an emotional resonance that went far beyond their purely graphic qualities. This, rather than novelty, was what the artists usually strove for. Since it was assumed that everyone knew what the «Four Accomplishments» involved, an artist could present the theme in ingenious disguises. Children or women might take the place of scholars, and sometimes the various instruments of the four arts were not shown but only suggested by means of visual puns, such as a kite on a string to represent a koto.

There are about 10 themes that are constantly reworked by the ukiyo-e artists, and nine out of 10 prints can be interpreted within the framework of these themes. In this two-part piece, I will introduce some of the most important themes and show an example of each.

Prince Genji

Go brings out best in ukiyo-e artists

The scene in the third chapter of «Genji Monogatari» (The Tale of Genji) of Prince Genji spying on two court ladies playing go has been an extremely popular subject over the centuries, and it has inspired some of the most elaborate woodblock prints ever made. This great novel was written between the years 1000 and 1015 by Murasaki Shikibu. The painting of important scenes from different chapters became a popular pastime in aristocratic circles, many members of which were trained artists. By the 13th century, such paintings had evolved into a new art form called «Genji pictures.» Guides were prepared for the use of amateur and professional artists that specified the pictorial requirements of each scene-someone standing here, two women seated over there, a lamp on that side, a distant view of a garden through the window, the season to be mid-summer, and so on. As the novel’s fame spread century after century to an ever wider public, some of these scenes became set pieces for artists working in a variety of different forms ranging from huge, folding screens down to tiny netsuke. Some of these scenes appear in illustrations and woodblock prints of the 17th and 18th century. By the middle of the 19th century, Genji prints had reached the height of their sumptuousness and popularity.

The temple of the Golden Pavilion

Go brings out best in ukiyo-e artists

«Kinkakuji» (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) is the title of one act of the play first written for the puppet theater in 1757, then adapted for kabuki a year later. The fact that two games of go are played in it gives it a special interest for go players.

The scene is laid in and around the famous Kinkakuji, built in Kyoto by the third Ashikaga Shogun. In the play, it is occupied by Matsunaga Daizen (1510—77), the treacherous governor of Kyoto who, to further his schemes, keep the aged mother of the recently deceased shogun imprisoned.

The act begins with Daizen and his younger brother playing a game of go and discussing their plots. A young man named Tokichi is led in, bound with a rope, by a servant who says he found him lurking outside the walls. Tokichi declares that he simply wants to enter Daizen’s service (later we discover that he is an Ashikaga loyalist and is trying to rescue the shogun’s mother). Daizen orders his bonds removed, then, to test his mental powers, challenges him to a game of go. During this game, played out move by move with constantly mounting tension, the plot thickens.

On another part of the stage we see Yukihime, a lovely young woman whose husband is also being kept prisoner by Daizen. She is in a state of mental agony because Daizen, whom she loathes, has demanded that she become his mistress if she wants her husband to regain his freedom. Tokichi wins the game, angering Daizen. The young man offers to play again, but this time Daizen devises a more difficult test. He throws one of the go bowls into a well in the garden and commands Tokichi to retrieve it without wetting his hands. Tokichi rises to the challenge with a neat trick. He finds a hollow bamboo pole and uses it to divert water from a nearby waterfall into the well, thus filling it so that the bowl floats to the top. He slides his fan under it, transfers it to an inverted go board (in order not to mar the surface) and presents it to Daizen, who this time is delighted at his quick wit and takes him into his service. After further complications the act comes to an end with the shogun’s mother rescued and Yukihime and her husband freed.

An interesting point about this drama is that Edo theatergoers recognized Tokichi as being none other than the young Toyotomi Hideyoshi in disguise, whose boyhood name was Tokichiro and who was involved, with Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, in the destruction of the Ashikaga shogunate.

Raiko and the Ground-Spider

Raiko, more formally known as Minamoto no Yorimitsu (944—1021), was a warrior of noble birth around whom gathered many legends celebrating his exploits in ridding the country of a variety of robbers, demons and ogres. One of these demons was known as Tsuchigumo (Ground-Spider). Folklorists think the name may denote a real person, possibly a brigand or highwayman who made his headquarters in a cave. In the stories, Tsuchigumo is a monstrous arachnid notorious for luring travelers into the subterranean cavern where he dwells and dining on their blood.

Two of these legends contributed ideas to the theater, and from the theater to woodblock prints connected with go. In one of these legends, Raiko is suffering from a mysterious ailment and is sleeping in his mansion. He is guarded by Watanabe no Tsuna, two retainers and Sakata no Kintoki. Two of them pass the time playing go. Goblins appear, sent by Tsuchigumo to take advantage of Raiko’s weakness and kill him. Raiko wakes in the nick of time and cuts off the principal demon’s arm (see far left panel of the largest print above), whereupon they all vanish. Raiko and his band follow a trail of blood deep into a cave where they find a huge spider, Tsuchigumo himself. They manage to kill it and Raiko quickly recovers.