Kuniyoshi, Shichibyoe Kagekiyo Resisting Arrest at Todaiji Temple

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Shichibyoe Kagekiyo Resisting Arrest at Todaiji Temple, 1840. Oban.

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A terrifically rare and exciting print, this musha-e (warrior print) by the great Kuniyoshi is unrecorded in Robinson, the compiler of the most reliable Kuniyoshi catalogue. Kuniyoshi rose to extraordinary prominence in the mid 1820’s by creating a long series of warrior prints that celebrated the exploits of the 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. Credited with creating the oban sized coloured single sheet warrior print, history has in fact been unkind to his rival Kunisada who developed fully the genre in the early 1820’s. Following the huge success of the series, Kuniyoshi went on to elaborate on these historic prints, creating some of the finest and most famous battle triptychs of all time. He returned again and again to the hero subjects of the Japanese epic myths and novels, sometimes in series and sometimes as one off prints such as this one.

This nearly unique example shows the warrior Shichibyoe Kagekiyo resisting his final arrest at the temple of Nara.

Taira no Kagekiyo (died 1196),was a samurai of the Taira clan who took part in the Genpei War of Japan, against the Minamoto clan. In 1156, he played a role in confirming Emperor Go-Shirakawa on the throne, and later, during the Genpei War, sought unsuccessfully to have the chief of the Minamoto clan, Minamoto no Yoritomo, assassinated. Kagekiyo was captured at the battle of Dan-no-ura in 1185. In 1196, Kagekiyo then allowed himself to starve to death at the new capital of Kamakura. In Japanese mythology, stories become reproduced and embroidered and they then become the very loose basis of  kabuki dramas. As a consequence, what few facts remaining become confused with the needs of dramatic narrative.

An outstanding print by Hirosada repeats one story of Kagekiyo’s final fate, following his arrest at the temple… . Kagekiyo seeks revenge against the powerful warlord Yoritomo. Intending to assassinate him at a temple in Nara, Kagekiyo dresses as a priest. He is discovered and challenged to fight but refusing to acknowledge his captors, he closes his eyes and continues to pray. Yoritomo spares him execution but blinds him instead and exiles him to a remote island.

In this great piece by Kuniyoshi, we see a very different Kagekiyo, grappling with assailants, fighting for his life. The strange, upside down figure that appears all over Japanese prints in the nineteenth century is present, and the design is a sophisticated ensemble of thrashing limbs and writhing bodies. The design bristles, literally, with Kuniyoshi’s deft masculine drawing. This is a muscular art, confident and controlled.

Colour, condition and impression are all fine. Slight trimming, especially to the top edge. The only other copy I know of is illustrated at the Kuniyoshi project online. 

36 x 25 cm.