Yoshitora, A Battle from the Taiheiki

Utagawa Yoshitora (active 1850-1880) A Battle from the Taiheiki (Taiheiki kassen no zu) Mid-1840’s. Oban Triptych.

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Yoshitora is a curious and enigmatic print artist. He is probably most well known for his later depictions of foreign traders at Yokohama during the 1860’s which might be seen as a tacit endorsement of the movement for change and modernisation. On the other hand, he was a loyal student of the greatest Edo print artist Kuniyoshi and this print among many others shows the very clear influence and presumably admiration for Kuniyoshi’s lifelong project to revere the heroes of the past… that is until one reads that Yoshitora was imprisoned and manacled for producing a parody of the great leaders from Japanese history such as Nobunaga and later expelled from Kuniyoshi’s workshop. He was later to complete Kunisada’s crowning achievement of okubi-e actor portraits with great success.

This triptych is from very early in his career and is wholly in the style of the Kuniyoshi atelier. It is a dramatic piece of narrative story telling. The composition is bisected by a great river; a man in the centre sheet is being pursued but is hopelessly overwhelmed by the army amassed on the right-hand sheet. In the left-hand sheet we can see monks in a temple fleeing for their lives.

The title - A Battle from the Taiheiki (Taiheiki kassen no zu) - refers to the late stages of the unification of Japan during the period of the warring states, in the sixteenth century. Oda Nobunaga was loyal to the powerful Tokegawa leader Ieyasu and total victory over all of Japan seemed at hand but Nobunaga was betrayed by an ally, Mitsuhide. Mitsuhide, aware that Nobunaga was nearby and unprotected saw an opportunity to act. Mitsuhide led his army toward Nobunaga and announced to his troops: "The enemy awaits at Honnō-ji!" In June 1582, before dawn, the Akechi army surrounded the Hono-ji temple with Nobunaga present. Although Nobunaga and his servants resisted the unexpected intrusion, they were soon overwhelmed. As the Akechi troops closed in, Nobunaga decided to commit seppuku in one of the inner rooms. Reportedly his last words were: "Ran, don't let them come in..." referring to his young page, Ranmaru who set the temple on fire as Nobunaga requested so that no one would be able to get his decapitated head.

I think that the print dramatically represents this moment. The temple at Hono-ji with the monks is seen in the left-hand sheet, Nobunaga in extremis in the centre sheet and the betraying army of Mitsuhide in the right sheet. The river separates the factions.

A classic musha-e triptych in the style of Kuniyoshi from the right period of the 1840’s. Colour, impression and condition are fair but overall a very good print.

73 x 35 cm.

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