Yoshikazu, The Battle at Yashima

Utagawa Yoshikazu (active 1850-1870) The Great Battle of the Minamoto and Taira Clans at Yashima (Genpei Yashima ôgassen), 1850's. Oban Triptych.

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Yoshikazu was one of the more renowned pupils of Kuniyoshi. His early work, such as this musha-e (warrior print) are very similar to Kuniyoshi’s but he made the change to a unique and very modern style following the Meiji restoration in the 1860’s. He is most widely known nowadays as the designer of Yokohama-e… pictures of Dutch, British and Americans in the ‘Free-Port’ of Yokohama.

This print is stunning and fully in the tradition of the Utagawa School. It is a classic battle scene triptych of a lesser known conflict. The battle was between the Taira and the Minamoto clans, and was the precursor to the much more famous sea battle at Dan-no-Ura, in which two opposing factions faced each other in fleets off the coast of Japan on April the 25th, 1185. The Taira had with them the seven year old Emperor and his family; the Minamoto were led by the legendary warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune. The turning point in that ferocious battle came when a senior Taira general defected to the Minamoto and identified the ship containing the child Emperor Antoku and his family. The Minamoto archers turned their arrows on the flagship, sending it out of control. The nine year old Emperor and his grandmother, foretelling defeat, jumped to their deaths saying, "In the depths of the ocean we have a capital." Then began the most tragic mass suicide in the history of the samurai.

Yoshikazu made several prints of that scene in imitation of Kuniyoshi. This scene is superb and it concerns perhaps the ‘deciding battle’ which sent the the Taira into their ships and weeks later to their deaths.  The Battle of Yashima took place on March 22, 1185. The Taira clan retreated to Yashima. Here they had a fortress, and palace for Emperor Antoku.

On the 18th, a Minamoto force tried to cross the sea but many of the boats were damaged in a storm. Kajiwara Kagetoki suggested adding "reverse oars" to the boats, which prompted an argument from Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Finally, after the boats were repaired and despite the high winds, Yoshitsune departed with only five of the 200 boats carrying about 150 of his men. After arriving Tsubaki Bay, Yoshitsune then advanced through the night reaching the bay with the Imperial Palace at Yashima. The Taira were expecting a naval attack, and so the master strategist Yoshitsune lit bonfires inland, fooling the Taira into believing that a large force was approaching from the land. They abandoned their palace, and took to their ships. The Minamoto were victorious, but the majority of the Taira fleet escaped to Dan-no-ura, where they were defeated one month later in the Battle of Dan-no-ura.

This is such an exciting print to ‘walk’ through. In the right hand sheet, we see the great imperial war barge of the Taira Clan, the Dowager Empress visible on deck. In the foreground, following their brilliant strategy, the Minamoto are assembled. Benkei, the great warrior monk of legend is visible with the strange head dress, holding a long handled hammer. The leader of the clan,  Minamoto no Yoritomo, Yoshitsune’s brother, is on horseback. A battle between samurai takes place along the beach; Yoshitsune is in the conical black helmet.

A really great battle triptych, colour and impression are excellent. Condition also excellent - some surface marks and creases commensurate with age. There is a copy of this print at the MFA Boston.

Publisher Minatoya Kohei.

77 x 37.5 cm.