Kuniyoshi, 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden - Hitentaisei Rikon

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden: Hitentaisei Rikon (Li Gun) 1827-1830. Oban.

From Kuniyoshi’s earliest and defining series, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden, this print depicts one of the founding heroes of the gang of bandits in the popular epic novel The Water Margin. What an astounding image this is; the figure resembles a gigantic insect, the helmet sprouting antennae like a mantis and the shield on his back seeming to be like the carapace of an enormous ladybird or beetle. Even his pose - crouching on a crag, scanning the horizon, has all the qualities of a predatory spider. Yet this is also the portrait of a great warrior.

Li Gun was famed for his great skills with the javelin and here he holds one of the 24 he always carried, the weapon breaking the margin at the top of the page. Li Gun was the 65th of the 72 Earthly Fiends and was known as the Sky Soaring Sage. These prints were based on stories from the historical Chinese novel, Shuihu zhuan.  It tells of the adventures of a band of 108 rebels who retreated to the margins of Liangshan Marsh only to engage in battle with rival gangs and foreign invaders. 

The print has a marvellous, embroidered character to it. The sky in the background seems stitched like the sky in a tapestry and Rikon’s robes are equally rich, embroidered and drawn to emphasise clearly their sewn quality. The picture’s spring-like colours and the delicacy of gesture reinforce Rikon’s role as a spy and lookout.

This is a rare print from Kuniyoshi’s “great” Suikoden series, the collection that made him famous.  These prints are credited with being the first single-sheet colour prints of the Suikoden story and the first large series of warrior prints designed by any ukiyo-e artist (although Kunisada had already experimented with the style and the format as early as 1820).

The print is only lightly trimmed and unbacked. It has an ethereal, gossamer quality to it. The same print appears in collections at the British Museum and at the MFA in Boston, although the colours and impression on this copy are superior to those. The impression and colours are very good, the condition is good over all.

Signed Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi ga, published by Kagaya Kichiemon, kiwame seal.