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Atemono - Japanese Magic

Volunteer Ikumi explains the significance of a piece in the collection relating to traditional Japanese magic
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Atemono – Japanese Classic Magic

Ikumi Furusho
27th Jun 2016
By Ikumi Furusho

A number of volunteers have been working with our specialist cataloguer on the Japanese collection. Today Ikumi explains the significance of a piece in the collection that she found particularly interesting.

The origin of magic in Japan can be traced back more than 700 years, predating the growth of magic in western cultures and predominantly practiced among common people. Such was its popularity, in fact, over 350 kinds of traditional magic would be performed, either for educational or amusement purposes.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), Metsuke-e and Metsuke-ji became particularly popular, with both games categorised as a guessing game called atemono. These magical games were performed by parents, children or paying customers at bathhouses and barber’s shops, rather than on a stage by professional magicians. However, not many studies have been done on atemono, especially the circular designs, and there are very few extant examples from this period.

Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery holds an original wooden printing block with a design of an atemono. Wood from cherry trees was often used to make printing blocks. Because the wood was valuable, both sides of a block were generally used for printing. Judging by the print design found on the opposite side of the woodblock, the atemono print was produced around 1849. The print design on the reverse side of the block was inspired by a Kyogeni performance that took place in Osaka in that year. The colour of the wood was permanently changed due to the repeated printing process utilising black ink.

This atemono block shows its title, instructions on how to perform the magic trick, as well as two wheels containing 18 different Kabukiii actor crests and 18 different numbers (including the number 19). First, the print buyer is required to cut out each circle and make holes in the middle of them in preparation for the trick. Next, the smaller circle is put on top of the inner part of the larger one and a needle or paper string is threaded through the holes so that the smaller circle will spin.

Although there are several possible ways to play this kind of atemono, the most basic is:

  • To start the game, the performer (or magician) asks the participant to rotate the spinner and to choose one Kabuki actor’s crest. At this time, the performer cannot look at the spinning discs.
  • The player moves so many places clockwise from their secretly chosen crest. The number on the smaller circle that lines up with that secret crest dictates the number of moves. The player counts along (starting from and including the initial number square in the number of clockwise moves) and arrives at the second crest.
  • The performer magically guesses which crest the player is now on. Oddly enough, the magician’s guess is always correct.

Atemono usually involves mathematics. The trick is very simple; whichever crest the player chooses, they will eventually arrive at a crest that corresponds with the number 19.

This atemono block is a valuable cultural artefact with a rich history. It is an interesting example of how popular leisure-time activities, such as arithmetic and Kabuki plays, were combined in a magical guessing game developed by the common people in Edo, Japan. If you stretch your imagination, you will be able to picture a lively image of people from centuries ago, gathered around the atemono, discussing and trying to reveal the trick.

iKyogen is a traditional farce performed during the interlude of Noh plays.
iiKabuki is a Japanese traditional theatre that originated in the Edo period and was particularly poplar among townspeople.