Kunichika, Tsuchigumo The Earth Spider

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Tsuchigumo (The Earth Spider) 1866. Oban Triptych. 

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A very fine and rare early triptych of the legend of the Earth Spider, Tsuchigumo, a no drama written for the kabuki stage by Kawataki Mokuami in the 19th century. There is some confusion over the name Tsuchigumo. The name actually refers to a race of cave dwelling people of the northern Japanese mountains, exterminated by the 11th century. Folklore appears to have exaggerated their physical attributes and wickedness. The spider illustrated here is the standard depiction of spiders throughout ukiyo-e, given the prevalence of spiders in Japan, it is surprising how unlike an actual spider the creatures of ukiyo-e are! I suppose that this is a representation of a kabuki performance and we are looking into the half world of stage and fantasy.

The name transfers at some point to a mythical giant ground dwelling spider that occurs frequently in Japanese demonology. In this print, Kunichika recounts the story of Minamoto no Yorimitsu, (948 - 1021). Yorimitsu (right)(played by Bando Hikosaburo V) is struck down with illness whilst tracking a giant demon skull, and a priest Tsuchigumo no Seijitsua (centre) visits him every night with medicine. One of Yorimitsu’s retainers, Kinmon Goro Munezo (played by Kawarzaki Gonjuro I) becomes suspicious and reveals the priest’s true identity by using a mirror. Yorimitsu strikes at the spider who escapes. Yorimitsu and his retainers track the trail of blood to a cave where they slaughter the demon spider and the thousands of spiderlings that flee from its belly. Yorimitsu’s sword was thereafter known as Kumokirimaru - "Spider Cutter".  Kunichika borrows the image of Tsuchigumo exactly from a Kuniyoshi print of 1845.

Three panels not attached at the seams, backed onto light calligraphy paper. Colours and impression both fine. Condition overall is excellent except some light wear to edges.

The print is illustrated on page 82 of Amy Reigle Newland, Time Past and Time Present, Images of a Forgotten Master,  Hotei Publishing 1999.

Published by Kagiyo Seijiro

715 x 350 cm.