Kunichika, Sawamura Tossho in the role of Taira no Atsumori

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Sawamura Tossho in the role of Taira no Atsumori from an untitled series of actor portraits, 1869

In the third of our okubi-e portraits we see Kunichika’s masterful depiction of Taira no Atsumori, the beautiful and tragic boy warrior beheaded at the battle of Ichi-no-tani in 1184. The story is recounted in the famous chronicle The Tales of the Heike, and in it the young Atsumori is ambushed on a beach by Kumagai Naozame. Naozame beckoned the youth, saying:
“I see that you are a Commander-in-Chief. It is dishonorable to show your back to an enemy. Return!”

The two grappled on the beach, but Kumagai was too powerful. Kumagai knocked off Atsumori's helmet to deliver the finishing blow, only to be struck by the beauty of the young noble. Atsumori was "sixteen or seventeen years old, with a lightly powdered face and blackened teeth—a boy just the age of Naozane's own son..."  At that moment, other Minamoto warriors arrived at the scene, and Kumagai knew that if he didn't kill Atsumori, the other warriors surely would. Kumagai reasoned that it would be better if he were the one to kill Atsumori, because he could offer prayers on his behalf for the afterlife. Crying, Kumagai beheaded the boy. Searching the body for something to wrap the head in, he came across a bag containing a flute. He realized that Atsumori must have been one of the soldiers playing music before the battle and thought, “There are tens of thousands of riders in our eastern armies, but I am sure none of them has brought a flute to the battlefield. Those court nobles are refined men!”

This beautiful print is alive with pattern and shape offsetting the bold drawing of the warrior. The great block of hair that fills the middle of the sheet unrolls across the page like a great black wave. There is something in Atsumori’s look that suggest the imminent and fatal descent of the executioner’s sword.

A fine print, full size and in perfect condition, fine colour and impression.

37cm x 25cm.