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Kabuki theatre of Japan

Anonymous artist, Shikan (right) and Rikan (left) in a 'neck-tugging' contest, woodblock with stencil-pr


Rikan and Shikan had performed together in their youth, but as adults the rivalry between them was fierce. Once Rikan became a troupe leader in 1805 he refused to perform with the more junior Shikan. The two seem to have had conflicting personalities and styles, with Shikan playing a complete range of roles and Rikan putting more emphasis on realistic character portrayal.

At the end of 1819 Rikan sent a formal letter of complaint to Shikan and his producer. In it he argued that Shikan's outlandish showmanship, and the way he deliberately created a frenzy among his fans, was damaging Rikan's own success. He accused Zenbei, Shikan's producer, of being obsessed with profit and claimed that the market had been flooded with Shikan-brand products. The letter gave the impression that Rikan, a relatively conservative actor at the peak of his career, saw Shikan as obsessed with promoting his own career to the detriment of Rikan and Osaka Kabuki as a whole.

Shikan and Zenbei both responded, apologizing profusely and professing their innocence. Shikan cleverly defended himself and deflected Rikan's criticisms but at the same time seemed to be challenging him. The rivalry between the pair inspired a flood of actor prints, books and albums.

This print shows the two actors in an imagined 'neck-tugging' contest. Both are dressed in role, with Shikan as Shakkyô, the Lion Dancer, and Rikan as Akizuki Daizen. The inscriptions are cries of encouragement from their fans, such as 'Ready, steady, go!'. Calls from fans for the superstars to perform together increased in intensity and they finally agreed in 1821. However, Rikan died suddenly before the performance could go ahead.

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Archaeological links with the Bible, £12.99

Archaeological links with the Bible, £12.99