Kuniyoshi, A Scene from Ichinotani Mushae no Iezuto

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) A Scene from the Play Ichinotani Mushae no Iezuto, 1849. Oban yoko-e.

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This very entertaining print is a scene from a play that commemorates one of the great decisive battles of the Genpei Wars in the 1180’s. The slightly unusual format of the yoko-e was only occasionally used by Kuniyoshi; in this case the format works to good effect, containing the triangular composition of the acrobatic Ichikawa Gangyoku as Ubare no Tagohei in the centre and Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Satsuma Tadanori and Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII as Okabe no Rokuyata on right and left respectively.

It was at this decisive battle that the tragic death of Atsumori occurred, commemorated earlier in this selection in Kunisada’s 1852 print, Famous Restaurants of the Eastern Capital: The Ogiya Restaurant. The battle, 20 March 1184, was between the Taira clan and the Minamoto. The Taira were defending a narrow strip of land on the seaward side of Kobe. They were unwittingly encircled by Yoshitsune’s men and Yoshitsune himself led a surprise attack from the landward side from a seemingly impossibly high mountain ridge.

The Taira were defeated, though not decisively, but many of their leading generals were lost.

The print is fascinating, partly because there are few theatre prints by Kuniyoshi in this format, and also because of the deliberate inclusion of the vaulting figure in the centre. We have written extensively about the strange pedigree of this enigmatic pose.  It does not appear in traditional Japanese or Chinese art and is entirely the invention of European painting, transferred presumably to the east via Dutch engravings. Our research suggests that the original can be found either in Raphael’s St Michael Vanquishing Satan of 1518, or the enigmatic figure in the bottom right being dragged into hell in Michelangelo’s famous Day of Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. 

This Kuniyoshi print is very nice, good colour and impression, very fresh. The condition is excellent aside from a centre fold that afflicts most of these yoko-e format prints. A copy of this print exists in the British Museum London.

24 x 36.5 cm.