Kuniyoshi, The Ghosts of the Taira Clan Attacking Yoshitsune's Ship in Daimotsu Bay in 1185

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The Ghosts of the Taira Clan Attacking Yoshitsune's Ship in Daimotsu Bay in 1185, 1840’s. Oban Triptych.

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One of the outstanding warrior triptychs of Kuniyoshi’s career, this is one of several versions of the same subject Kuniyoshi made at the end of the 1840’s. These ghost triptychs are very rare and I cannot find this particular version in the literature, which may make it very rare indeed. Yoshitsune’s ship, in full sail, filled with his samurai is tossed on a great storm. Waves are crashing all around the bows like gigantic blue mountains and out of the waves emerges an army of skeleton samurai printed in deathly blues and greys, their leader gesturing wildly at the foundering ship with a naginata. In the background, against a leaden sky another army of demon soldiers in monochrome descends on the scene. Yoshitsune’s ship, almost the only colour in the print, cuts across all three sheets, as his faithful retainer Benkei holds out a Buddhist rosary to the invading horde. In the background Kuniyoshi has drawn the young, defeated Emperor and his grandmother on the sunken imperial flagship.

The scene is marvellously described by F Hadland Davis in Myths and Legends of Japan, Dover Publications 1992:

We get one more glimpse of Dan-no-ura from a legendary point of view. Yoshitsune and his faithful henchman arranged to cross in a ship from the province of Settsu to Saikoku. When they reached Dan-no-ura a great storm arose. Mysterious noises came from the towering waves, a far-away echo of the din of battle, of the rushing of ships and the whirling of arrows, of the footfall of a thousand men. Louder and louder the noise grew , and from the lashing crests of the waves there arose a ghostly company of the Taira clan. Their armour was blood-stained, and they thrust out their vaporous arms and tried to stop the boat in which Yoshitsune and Benkei sailed. It was a ghostly reminiscence of the battle of Dan-no-ura, when the Taira had suffered terrible and permanent defeat. Yoshitsune, when he saw this great phantom host, cried out for revenge even upon the ghosts of the Taira dead; but Benkei, always shrewd and circumspect bade his master lay aside his sword, and took out a rosary and recited a number of Buddhist prayers. Peace came to the great company of ghosts, the wailing ceased, and gradually they faded into the sea which now became calm.

The Taira Clan were defeated in the battle of Dan-no-ura in 1185. The sea battle was the culmination of a war that would decide who ruled Japan for the next seven hundred years. Two opposing factions, the Minamoto and the Taira (Heike) clans faced each other in fleets off the coast of Japan on April the 25th, 1185. The Taira had with them the seven year old Emperor and his family; the Minamoto were led by the legendary warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune. The turning point in the ferocious battle came when a senior Taira general defected to the Minamoto and identified the ship containing the child Emperor Antoku and his family. The Minamoto archers turned their arrows on the flagship, sending it out of control. As the battle turned against them, sensing defeat, Antoku and his grandmother jumped to their deaths saying, “In the depths of the ocean we have a capital;” followed shortly by their loyal Taira samurai. The Taira threw the crown jewels overboard with them. The royal sword was never recovered. At the close of the engagement, the warrior Taira Norimori placed a heavy anchor on his armour and followed the rest into the sea.

It is said that the ghosts of the Taira haunt the sea and the site of the battle and curiously, the crab shells still caught in the bay bear an uncanny resemblance to a samurai mask.  The legend persisted in prints such as this, where the artist pictured the vengeful ghosts of the Taira rising up from the ocean to seek revenge on their old enemy.

This is a spectacular print. Full size and unbacked. The colour, impression and condition are all fine.