Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Virtuous Women For the Eight Views: Night Rain at the Hunting Ground, 1842 - 43.
This is one of my favourite prints in the February show about women at the Toshidama Gallery… appropriately enough, the exhibition is called: Women in the Drowning World. Here is a portrait of Tegoshi no Shosho, quite literally nearly drowning in the downpour that engulfs her and presumably the heroic Soga Brothers, just out of shot and yet on their way to commit gruesome, bloody and violent revenge against the murderer of their real father.
The print is a small and concise masterpiece, the abstract arrangement of the various parts is superb… the two cartouches in the upper portion and the terrific and understated beauty of the downpour that here acts like the forbidding bars of a jail, imprisoning Tegoshi in the melodrama… here she is, this frail beauty, a prostitute, her life already compromised and indeed a prison. She is confined is she not, between the great brown vertical pillar of the house on her left and the bars of rain, stepping hesitantly out into the darkness. Her love affair with Soga Goro is perhaps the only sustaining thing in her life and yet by her actions this night she will also end that. She carries a lantern, partially hidden beneath her kimono.
What is fascinating about this print is its covert reference to landscape and to the symbolism of that landscape. In eleventh century China, eight views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers developed as a formalised series of landscape paintings. They represented views of the rivers and wetlands around Lake Dongting. The same eight views - autumn moon, lingering snow, evening glow, vesper bells, returning boats, clearing weather, night rain and homing geese - are likened to virtuous women from Japanese history and legend in this series of prints. There are numerous print series which are used as analogies to the eight views, some obvious, some obscure and some subversive. In this piece, Kuniyoshi chooses the view, The rain at night on the Xiaoxiang. The connection with the rain here is obvious and rain had long been a tradition when picturing the tragic self sacrifice of the doomed brothers.
There is more to the choice of view… Any reference to Xiao-Xiang immediately calls famous stories to mind. For example, according to early legend, a sage ruler named Shun 舜 (traditionally 2294–2184 BCE) died suddenly near the Xiang River. His two wives mourned on the water’s edge for days, their copious tears staining the nearby bamboo. Overcome with grief, they cast themselves into the Xiang and drowned, becoming goddesses of the river (asia.si.edu). So, Kuniyoshi has taken the view of the Xiao-Xiang river, a view associated with the copious shedding of tears… a place associated with death and sorrow and the grief of loving wives and mistresses. He has emphasised the night scene and the rain in the brooding and jail like backdrop but he has also done an extraordinary thing with the canopied curtain at the top of the print... if you scroll down to the bottom of the page, I have posted a jpeg that overlays the profile of the canopy from Kuniyoshi’s mini-masterpiece with Hokusai’s famous drawing of Mount Fuji from Mount Fuji in Clear Weather of the the early 1830’s. As can be seen the match is exact.
Returning to the print, we can see that the blue and white curtain is an unnecessary intervention, other than serving the function of introducing some lightness into the upper portion. The folded material is clearly there to act as a symbolic entity, overlooking the entire scene. Fuji san as it is known represents the great, animist god of the nation… it is a mighty and brooding presence, important as a place of worship, as a place of pilgrimage and as a holy place in both shinto and Buddhist religions. Its place in this print is to overlook the scene unravelling beneath it… the cone of Fuji, disguised in the curtain acts as a benevolent blessing to the whole venture.
The venture itself was of course doomed. Tegoshi no Shosh was the lover of Soga Goro. In the twelfth century two rival lords fell out, Lord Kuto killed Lord Ito who left two infant boys, Juro and Goro. Their mother remarried and they took their stepfather’s name Soga. At five, they vowed revenge on their father’s death and by maturity they were committed to carrying out the plan. In 1192 on the occasion of a hunting party, they ambushed Kuto, slaying him in his tent. They were set upon by Kuto’s retainers who killed Juro and captured Goro. Despite the justice of their case, Goro was executed on the orders of the Shogun. There is a good summary of the Soga Brothers story here.