The prints of backgammon
The classic game of backgammon (ban-sugoroku), in which players roll dice to see who can be first to move 15 pieces across
a board and into enemy territory, arrived in Japan from China in the 8th century. It remained popular among the nobility until the
17th century, at which point it was supplanted by e-sugoroku (picture backgammon). In this variation the board is replaced by
a large sheet of paper divided into colorful sections, each with an illustration.
Initially, the e-sugoroku sheets were didactic and Buddhist in nature, with the goal being to reach heaven safely (at least your
piece, that is, thanks to a good roll of the dice) and not land in hell. One can imagine this type of entertainment being altogether
too serious for the Japanese spirit, however, and sure enough, by the time the fun-loving merchant class finished their make-over of
the concept, the illustrations had become unmistakably floating world in character — scenic landmarks, kabuki imagery, and ribald
jokes of a sexual or scatological bent.
Fig. 1 is a circa 1865 sugoroku print by the Osaka artist Ichiyôtei Yoshitaki (1841-99), published by Naniwa Tenmado and
titled Furyu warai sugoroku (Fashionably funny sugoroku). Measuring 50 x 37 cm, actually rather small for such a game
sheet, it consists of two standard ôban sheets glued together at the center.
Going in circles
Players start in the lower right corner and proceed in a clockwise spiral toward the center (agari). In this case, in order to
arrive as a guest at the very inviting geisha-filled cherry-viewing party, players need to negotiate a hellish assortment of grotesque
visuals. Can you spot the man crawling out of a nostril? Or, executed with a wink and a nod to Hokusai, the lady with the octopus and
the multi-legged pants? No? Well, just as well.
Along the journey of zany colors and outrageous puns, a player might be labeled a thief, a master of farting, or far, far worse. Not really
suitable for the kids, one might think, but then again the black ink circled numbers brushed on the sheet do suggest a fairly childish hand.
Still more wrappers
Many types of special edition and novelty prints, and picture books too, were originally sold with woodblock-printed wrappers. Most of these
items have gone astray over time, but Fig. 2, the cover for the Yoshitaki sugoroku, is a rare survivor. Announcing 'warai sugoroku'
in very bold characters, this accompaniment to the game sheet is meant to resemble a large, hand-painted kite.
Such a design would be ideal for the New Year season, a time, now as well as then, to relax with friends, and sake, and enjoy amusing woodblock
prints in a different, hands-on way.