Kuniyoshi, Yoshitsune and His Nineteen Loyal Retainers

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Yoshitsune and his nineteen Loyal Retainers, 1855. Oban.

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This classic Kuniyoshi warrior triptych of 1855 has spawned many imitations, including by Kuniyoshi himself. It is a startling and original design which is iconic of mid-century Japanese woodblock printing.

Against a dark blue sky, Yoshitsune, the greatest hero of Japanese folk history stands surrounded by his nineteen loyal retainers. Yoshitsune is the handsome young warrior standing with a tiger skin sword sheath. Their boat is a magnificent, canopied affair, bedecked in sails and banners, the rigid roof ebonised and lacquered, decorated with Yoshitsune’s crest and embellished with every sort of decoration. The great prow of this flag ship is topped by a mighty knotted fender in black material which flails and dips in the wind that fills the boat’s magnificent sail. Waves borrowed from Hokusai foam at the prow in which stands resolute the great heroic companion of Yoshitsune, Benkei, his right hand man. Benkei is a warrior monk, pictured here as typical in Yamabushi robes beneath his armour.

It is likely that Kuniyoshi is picturing Yoshitsune en route to the Battle of Dan-no-ura of April the 25th, 1185. The Taira clan who were the dominant force in Japan had with them the seven year old Emperor and his family; the Minamoto were led by 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.

This is really a great print. Unbacked, the colour and impression are very good. The surface is somewhat soiled, there are centre folds on each sheet, and there has been uneven trimming.

Published by Idzumi-ya Ichibei.

75 x 35.5 cm.