Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) The Battle of Dan-no-Ura, 1860’s. Six Sheet Oban (previously unrecorded).
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This is a tremendously important set of prints. Hexaptychs, (six consecutive sheets) are in any case very rare, and unknown in Yoshitoshi’s oeuvre. The print, because of its rarity should really be in a museum collection. Three sheets were known (but not seen) by Roger Keyes, the first important compiler of Yoshitoshi. They appear in his catalogue as no 117A. The six sheets as stated are completely unrecorded anywhere.
It's a masterpiece, a tremendous and mighty work, stretching nearly five feet when laid out and every single square centimetre is intensely worked. No part of the print is neglected and Yoshitoshi has put extraordinary effort into its production. It is astonishing in fact that the sheets remain unknown - presumably because of a short print run. The subject matter is the legendary Battle of Dan-no-Ura. This sea battle was important because in the minds of the Japanese it established the centuries long rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and dismissed the importance of the Imperial family.
Two opposing factions, the Minamoto and the Taira (Heike) clans 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 the 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. As the battle turned against them, sensing defeat, Antoku and his grandmother jumped to their deaths saying, “in the depths of the ocean we have a capital;” followed shortly by their loyal Taira samurai.
The Taira threw the crown jewels overboard with them. The royal sword was never recovered. At the close of the engagement, the warrior Taira Norimori placed a heavy anchor on his armour and followed the rest into the sea. The defeat signalled the end of the Empire and the imposition of the Shogunate until 1868 when the Meiji Emperor was restored, though the child-emperor beneath the waves has continued to be revered up to the present day.
The work is almost entirely in the style of Yoshitoshi’s teacher, Kuniyoshi and follows the conventions of other pupils such as Yoshikazu. Yoshitoshi pictures the closing stages of the fight. Reading from left, sheet 1, we see the Minamoto arriving in the final rout of the Taira. What is presumably the hero Yoshitsune has jumped eight boats (a famous legend in itself) to arrive on the prow of a smashed set of vessels. All around him the torrential deluge of waves has wrecked and broken the Taira craft. Yoshitoshi uses the chaotic interlacing of these wave forms against the rigid geometry of the boats to great effect…evoking the horrid chaos of war. In the second sheet, two tremendously vigorously drawn Taira warriors rush forward, literally as a man whilst behind them we see one of the defeated ships sinking below the waves. The third sheet continues the forward motion of the routed Taira and when we get to sheet four they are met with a hail of arrows descending on the stricken imperial troops. Significantly Yoshitoshi uses the impenetrable barrage of arrows in contrast to the opposing motion of the Taira, setting up the dynamism of the whole piece. Yoshitoshi has borrowed the hail of arrows from Kuniyoshi’s late print of 1851 Last Stand of the Kusonoki Heroes at Shijo Nawate. This print shows the defeat of the Kusonoki clan and forms really the stylistic basis for Yoshitoshi’s print of a decade later. Notice how much of the incidental detail is familiar, the warrior beneath the tasseled pennants for example.
Centre in sheet five is, I suspect, Taira Norimori, the general who will shortly fling himself beneath the waves. In the final sheet, only just visible is the tiny and pathetic figure of the young emperor seated on his grandmother and others of the clan around them. The boat they are in will sink and they will die in the ocean.
This is a tremendous achievement… a vast panorama of conflict, the separate blocks alone would run into dozens and represent hundreds of hours of carving… and yet this appears to be one of possibly only a handful of surviving copies - if that. The colour has held up well and is fine, the impression is fine on all sheets. The print is worn in places and there are edge fritts on most sheets. There have been various strengthening patches to the corners on the reverse of several sheets which have helped preserve its structural integrity. Otherwise the print is unbacked and overall I’d say the condition was very good indeed. This is a rare object of great cultural importance… a true masterpiece.