Yoshitoshi, The Assassination of Ii Naosuke (Probably)

Taiso Yoshitoshi(1839 - 1892) The Assassination of Ii Naosuke (probably), 1870's. Oban triptych.

Click here for a full-size image.

This is a tremendous print and a real discovery. The piece seems to be a previously unrecorded print by the great Meiji artist Yoshitoshi. The triptych does not appear in Keyes’ catalogue nor does the now essential site, yoshitoshi.net have any record of it either. We must therefore assume that the triptych escaped the collectors of the twentieth century and in addition must have been a short print run in the first place.

We have been in contact with yoshitoshi.net who are assisting in identifying a possible title and subject. The print seems likely to have been made around 1870 to 1871 judging by the publisher’s information. I am suggesting (with a fair bit of certainty) that the scene is the assassination of  Ii Naosuke. Ii Naosuke (1815 - 1860) was the chief negotiator for the various treaties that ended the isolation of Japan and ushered in (via violent and bloody unrest) the modern era in Japan. His reforms, against the backdrop of the crumbling shogunate were fiercely opposed by the traditional cast of Samurai and Daimyo. As a consequence a rebellion of seventeen Ronin (leaderless Samurai) issued a statement of intent and assassinated  Ii outside Edo Castle. It can be argued that the incident caused the collapse of the Tokugawa regime and the establishment of the Meiji Empire in 1868.

Yoshitoshi vacillated between his clear interest in western culture and his longing for and admiration of the traditions of Japanese Edo life. His rage and frustration were the consequence of the failure of the ruling Tokugawa government to act with decisiveness… a frustration shared by the rest of the population.

Yoshitoshi made other versions of the subject, both of these versions take place in the snow. I am persuaded though by the unusual elements of the design. Two iron clad ships (black ships as they were known) of Commander Perry’s force are moored out in the bay on the left sheet. Beneath them are the identifiable roofs of the entrance to Edo castle. The assailants in traditional dress, storm the covered court, grabbing the shrieking form of what I assume to be Ii Naosuke. In the lower right sheet a scroll falls from his hand - presumably the Harris Treaty. Above this violent scene there is an  eight branched chandelier of western design, its glass globes echoing the form of the moon in the left sheet. In the right hand sheet, palace officials recoil in horror and an unusual item of furniture… a round table, French Empire in design with a Greek key pattern decoration, is overturned in the melée. Note the relative coarseness of the features of Naosuke, his cowardly grimace and also the coin held between the thumb and forefinger of Arimura Jisaemon, the likely identity of the assailant, poised to decapitate Ii and then take his own life with his sword. Yoshitoshi is indicating his sympathy for the attackers merely by his drawing of the figures… the implied nobility of the assailants, the squeamishness of the epicene courtiers. There is to my mind also the comparison to be made between the moon - so important to Japanese culture - and the vulgarity of the brass and glass globes of the American chandelier. The print could well have fallen foul of the censors and been withdrawn, this copy could well be a proof for the publishers or the print could have been made and issued privately… one cannot be sure.

The print is unique (as far as we can tell), it has survived well. The impression is very crisp, colour bright and clean with burnishing in places. Overall the condition is very good, some scuffing near the edges, generally very fresh and clean.

74 x 36 cm.