Kunichika, The Battle of Hakodate Castle

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) The Battle of Hakodate Castle, c 1880. Oban Triptych.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

A superbly energetic battle triptych by Kunichika representing a kabuki play based on the last stand of the old Tokugawa loyalists at the battle of Hakodate. The action takes place at the close of 1868 when the newly installed Meiji Government encountered opposition to its reforms and modernisation programme from the traditional and loyal followers of the outgoing Tokugawa Shogunate in minor skirmishes known as the Boshin war.

The defeated Tokugawa army sails up the coast pursued by the Meiji army. They are hugely outnumbered and out-gunned and the final conflict takes place in the precincts of the Hakodate castle where the shogunate forces are defeated. This was the final major act of defiance to the new regime and the government on the whole pardoned the rebels and awarded them roles in the new administration. The battle involved the use of modern armaments - ironclad ships and cannon - though representations of it such as this one romanticise the conflict, showing the combatants in traditional clothes and fighting with swords rather than guns. The battle formed the centre-piece of the successful film The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise.

Kunichika pictures a Tokugawa commander in traditional samurai clothes with his sword raised; he is surrounded by swords and spears and there is an explosion in the night sky above him. This is a picture of the heroic defeat of the old guard and betrays Kunichika’s deep suspicions about the modernisation of Japan at the time.

The print is full size, mounted onto old Japanese paper and in good condition overall. A fine and dramatic piece with a tumultuous and tightly drawn composition that pushes the central figure to the foreground. There is some oxidation to the pigments and overall the colour is very good. Some surface wear, embossing to the clothing.

73cm x 36cm.