Kuniyoshi, Tomoye-gozen struggling with Musashi Saburoemon Arikuni

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Tomoye-gozen struggling with Musashi Saburoemon Arikuni, 1840. Oban.

This very rare and exquisite print has, like the previous piece, a strong woman as its principal subject: in this case the very famous female samurai folk heroine Tomoye-gozen. I know of only one other copy of this print - that of the Arthur R Miller collection, currently on loan to the British Museum London.

In these complex warrior prints we see the extraordinary development not only in artistic skill and licence but also in the exceptional skills of the the artisans - the block carvers and printers. It is interesting to contrast the unbelievably fine lines and tightly registered detail of this piece with the Toyokuni Tiger from thirty years previously which, although a masterpiece of design, has none of the refinement of this musha-e warrior print. Aside from the extraordinary design - the twisted and interlocking elements and the curious lateral symmetry of the two figures, reflected across the horizontal median (notice the reflected heads and the position of the weapons) - there is also, within the maelstrom, a great study of character, particularly in the face of Tomoye-gozen.

Tomoye was the warrior mistress of Kiso Yoshinaka, and is seen here overcoming the Taira warrior Musashi Saburoemon Arikuni in a fight from the northern campaign of Minamoto no Yoshinaka during the Genpei Wars of the late twelfth century. She is a popular folk heroine but rarely illustrated until Kuniyoshi’s mid-century invention of the strong woman print.

This print is not from a known series although it has a strong affinity with Kuniyoshi’s Warriors of the Suikoden from a decade earlier. The print is a very fine early edition with completely unfaded colours and is from a very crisp and early block. The condition of the print is very good except for some wormage which has been restored. Full size with margins and remarkably unbacked.

Published by Yamamotoya Heikichi. Signed Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi ga.

The print is in on loan to the British Museum London.