Monday, April 28, 2008

Emperor Sutoku and Tengu

From "A Hundred Verses from Old Japan"
(The Hyakunin-isshu)
translated by William N. Porter



Se wo hayami
Iwa ni sekaruru
Taki-gawa no
Warete mo sue ni
Awan to zo omou.

THE rock divides the stream in two,
And both with might and main
Go tumbling down the waterfall;
But well I know the twain
Will soon unite again.

Alt. Translation:
Though a swift stream is
Divided by a boulder
In its headlong flow,
Though divided, on it rushes,
And at last unites again.

The town of Kamakura, where is the great bronze image of Buddha Amida, was built by this Emperor, who reigned A.D. 1124-1141; he was then forced by his father, the ex-Emperor Toba, to abdicate in favour of his brother, the Emperor Konoye; afterwards he entered the church, and died in the year 1164, an exile in the Province of Sanuki. This verse is intended to suggest the parting of two lovers, who will eventually meet again.

Legend - from

After Sotoku's abdication and exile, he devoted himself to monastic life. He copied numerous scriptures and offered them to the court. Fearing that the scriptures were cursed, the court refused to accept them. Snubbed, Sotoku was said to have resented the court and, upon his death, became an Onryō (Japanese ghost who is able to return to the physical world in order to seek vengeance). Everything from the subsequent fall in fortune of the Imperial court, the rise of the samurai powers, draughts and internal unrests were blamed on his haunting.
Alternatively, he was said to have transformed into an Ootengu, one of the greater tengu (***see definition below), whom, along with the nine-tailed kitsune of Tamamo-no-Mae and the oni Shuten Dōji, are often called the three greatest yōkai (creatures in Japanese folklore ranging from the evil to the mischievous and possess part animal and part human features) of Japan.

Kuniyoshi Print

This selection is from one hundred prints illustrating the Japanese poetry anthology called the Hyakunin Isshu, which was compiled by the poet Fujiwara no Teika 1162-1241 . The Hyakunin Isshu has always been a popular subject, and part of the Japanese culture; it has even taken the form of a card game. This print illustrates the wrath of Emperor Sutoku causing a thunderstorm in Sanuki.


***Tengu -

Tengu (天狗, Tengu? "heavenly dogs") are a class of supernatural creatures found in Japanese folklore, art, theater, and literature. They are one of the best known yōkai (monster-spirits) and are sometimes worshipped as Shinto kami (revered spirits or gods). Although they take their name from a dog-like Chinese demon (Tiangou), the tengu were originally thought to take the forms of birds of prey, and they are traditionally depicted with both human and avian characteristics. The earliest tengu were pictured with beaks, but this feature has often been humanized as an unnaturally long nose, which today is practically the tengu's defining characteristic in the popular imagination.
Buddhism long held that the tengu were disruptive demons and harbingers of war. Their image gradually softened, however, into one of protective, if still dangerous, spirits of the mountains and forests. Tengu are associated with the ascetic practice known as Shugendō, and they are usually depicted in the distinctive garb of its followers, the yamabushi.

Elephant catching a flying tengu


From U. Kuniyoshi's student:

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Mount Yoshino Midnight Moon, 1886. From the 100 Phases of the Moon series. 9.25" x 13.5". From here.
Iga no Tsubone confronts the tormented spirit of Sasaki no Kiyotaka, who was forced to comit suicide for giving the emperor bad advice. Sasaki's ghost appears as a troublesome tengu demon, with kite's wings and claws.


Friday, April 25, 2008

Kuniyoshi: "The Faithful Samurai"

I found this description of the "Chushingura" (the subject of the previous post), which is often referred to as the “Treasury of Loyal Hearts”, and felt it provided a better overview of the story:

Found at

"One of the most famous stories of revenge in Japanese history comprises the exploits of the 47 Ronin (masterless samurai) who avenged the death of their lord in the early 18th century. Their story, the Chushingura, illustrates and defines the Japanese concept of loyalty, providing a supreme example of the samurai ideals of cool courage and fidelity. The Faithful Samurai: Kuniyoshi Woodblock Prints tells this tale through the stunning triptychs, warrior prints, and bust portraits of artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861).
In 1701, a feudal lord, Asano Naganori, was dishonored by Lord Kira, the Shogun's Master of Ceremonies. Lord Asano could no longer bear the insults and humiliating behavior directed toward him by his superior. Despite all efforts at self-control, he drew his sword in a fit of rage and struck Kira, but not fatally. Any violence inside the Shogun's palace was forbidden, and Lord Asano was ordered to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide. His estates and castle were confiscated, and all his men were disbanded to become ronin.
The group of the dishonored Asano's faithful samurai swore an oath to avenge his death. The conspirators had full knowledge that such a plan, if successful, would lead to seppuku for them all, because secret revenge was against the law. After a year of planning, the group came together and attacked Kira's mansion. Following a fierce fight, they beheaded Kira and formally presented the head before the grave of their slain lord. A few months later, all 47 ronin committed judicially imposed seppuku.
This event struck a deep emotional chord in the very heart of Japanese society, and the result was a steady stream of theatrical performances, books, and woodblock prints.
Kuniyoshi was a portrayer of Japanese history and legend. In all, he produced more than 1,600 single-sheet prints and 360 triptychs. But the 47 Ronin especially held his artistic attention with great passion and intensity throughout his 45-year career. He produced 12 series and 20 triptychs devoted to the Chushingura, or “Treasury of Loyal Hearts” as the story is called in Japanese. "

Copyright ©2005 Mid-America Arts Alliance. All rights reserved.

Onodera Junai's wife (one of the 47 ronin) preparing for jigai (female version of seppuku) to follow her husband in death : legs are bound as to maintain a decent posture in agony ; death is given by a tanto cut at the jugular vein. Kuniyoshi woodcut, Seichu gishin den series ("Story of truthful hearts"), 1848

Benkei holding a halberd
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Kuniyoshi: Kanadehon Chushingura “a Japanese Kabuki production”

The following is taken from the website for “Degener Japanese Fine Prints”


Kanadehon Chushingura “a Japanese Kabuki production”

Of the numerous dramas performed in the kabuki theater, by far the most popular as a subject for color prints was the Chushingura, or the "Loyal League of Forty-seven Ronin", mostly published in series of eleven or twelve designs corresponding to the eleven acts of the drama (with occasionally an additional design of one of the extra-scenes of act XI, like in the case of the set by Kuniyoshi represented in this section). The fact that the complete play was illustrated in an entire series of 'tableaux' gives us some idea of its immense popularity, a popularity which it has retained to the present day.
Originally written for the marionette theater by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1723) and Takeda Izumo (1688-1756),
Japan's two most celebrated playwrights, the Chushingura was first performed in Edo in 1748. - The Chushingura is founded on an historical event which took place in the fourteenth year of the Genroku period, that is in 1701, and relates how a certain noble, Asano Takumi-no-Kami, was so persistently insulted by another noble, Kira Kotsuke-no-Suke, his instructor in Court etiquette, that he was at last compelled to draw his sword upon his tormentor in the latter's palace, though he only managed to inflict a slight wound, owing to the timely (or untimely, according to the point of view) interference of a certain officer, Kajikawa Yosobei, thanks to whom Kotsuke escaped an attack which otherwise would certainly have ended fatally for him. Such an offence (drawing his weapon within the Court precincts) was punishable by death, and Takumi-no-Kami was condemned to commit seppuku, or self-immolation.
The revenge-story of his faithful retainers who so had become masterless samurai, or ronin, is the subject of the play, here illustrated by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Henk Herwig, "Heroes of the kabuki stage", Amsterdam, 2004. The play is discussed in detail in chapter 16, 'Chushingura, the Story of the Loyal Retainers', pp. 179 - 196; the illustrations in the book were made from our set.
William Pearl's gradually expanding web site, exclusively devoted to the work of Kuniyoshi: Kuniyoshi Project

Please visit for all of the prints in this series

Act III: Kamakura Jidaikan, Bloodshed

Yenya's attack on Moronao, he is being restrained, while the latter falls.


Act IV: Hokan's Hara-kiri

Yuranosuke outside the castle by night, holding the dirk with which his lord had performed seppuku.


Act VII: Ichiriku Geisha House

The spy, Kudayu, dragged from under the flooring; Yuranosuke and O-Karu above.


Act VIII: The Bride on her Way

The bridal journey of Konami and her mother, Tonase; they rest under a tree, with Fuji in the background


Act IX: The Quiet Retreat in Yamashina

Rikiya attacking Honzo with a spear, Yuranosuke in the doorway.


Act XI / scene 1: The Raid

The ronin in the snow surrounding Moronao, who has been dragged from the charcoal-


Act XI / scene 2: Moronao's head

Yuranosuke and the ronin laying the head of Moronao on their lord's tomb.


Kuniyoshi: Master of Musha-e

musha-e: "Warrior prints." as defined at

Musha-e: "Originally, paintings of historically important warriors; also includes warrior prints." as defined at

From Wikipedia:

"Kuniyoshi was an excellent teacher and had numerous pupils who continued his branch of the Utagawa school. Among the most notable were Yoshitoshi, Yoshitora, Yoshiiku, Yoshikazu, and Yoshifuji. Typically his students began an apprenticeship in which they worked primarily on musha-e in a style similar to that of their master. As they became established as independent artists, many went on to develop highly innovative styles of their own. His most important student was Yoshitoshi, who is now regarded as the "last master" of the Japanese woodblock print."

From and

Kuniyoshi portrayed nearly 1,000 different characters in his warrior and historical prints.

Kuniyoshi produced more than 370 warrior triptychs and diptychs between 1818 and his death in 1861. This number does not include his many depictions of actors in historically based kabuki plays. ...the individual panels are each about 14 by 10 inches (36 by 25 centimeters), a size known as ôban.

Some musha-e prints:

"Hasebe Nobutsura during the taira attack on the takakura palace, Kyoto"
(click painting to purchase t-shirts with this quote)

"Kagesue, Takatsuna and Shigetada crossing the Uji river"
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861)

"Honjo Shigenaga parrying an exploding shell"

"Femme Samurai"
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861)