Kuniyoshi, Six Selected Heroes - Onchi Sakon Mitsukazu

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Six Selected Heroes: Onchi Sakon Mitsukazu, 10th month 1853. Oban.

Kuniyoshi, having mastered and refined the warrior print (musha-e), continued to produce series of warriors throughout the rest of his career. This short series, Six Selected Heroes from 1853 is a remarkable and consistent set of only six designs, all of them nocturnal, all of them playing with the effects of light and shade, silhouette and gravure landscape. Each of the full-figure portraits confronts an off-stage opponent amid the shadowy scenes of war in the background.

In this print, Onchi Sakon Mitsukazu (known as Onchi-Sakon-Taro), a retainer of Kusunoki Masashige is seen slicing the air with his sword; the helmet (and possibly the head) of his unseen opponent is falling towards him on the right of the picture; a waterfall is catching the moonlight in the background.  Mitsukazu was a noted spy and informant as well as swordsman and famous for his disguise as a monkey showman, perhaps alluded to in the tengu crest of his helmet. He and Masashige were killed at the Battle of Minatogawa, (the Battle of Minato River) in 1336 between the Emperor and the Ashikagawa clan. The Ashikagawa won and Kusonoki Masashige committed suicide.

Something not noted before in the literature is that all the prints in this series recount the battle at Minato River. Nitta Yoshida, the commander of the Imperial army is represented and so to is the final stand of Masashige. The river and waterfall motif in the background of all the prints is another clear indication of the scene. The series should perhaps be re-titled: Six Selected Heroes of the Imperial Army at the Battle of Minatogawa.

This is a fine series of designs, the play of light and night time shadows is masterful and there is a pathos in the soon to be defeated heroes. The armour on Mitsukazu shimmers with burnished blacks not visible in the photograph and the use of colour is delicate and arresting. The print is an excellent impression and unfaded; there is slight damage to one corner and to the bottom. Otherwise very good condition. Backed.

This print appears in the collections of the British Museum and the MFA in Boston.

Signed Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi ga, published by Hayashiya Shogoro, carved by Hori Take.