Yoshitsuya, 54 Battle Stories of Hideyoshi - Harunaga-ko and the Angry Sotetsu

Utagawa Yoshitsuya (1822-1866) Harunaga-ko and the Angry Sotetsu from 54 Battle Stories of Hideyoshi, 1864. Oban.

We are showing three classic warrior prints from Yoshitsuya’s finest series: 54 Battle Stories of Hideyoshi. Hagiography is an art common to all cultures - this combination of historical fact, mythology and fiction, designed to elevate the subject and set him (usually) above his contemporaries. In Japan, few other figures than Hideyoshi (1536 - 1598) could be more praised or mythologized. Hideyoshi is the hero general above all others: a ‘peasant samurai’ he rose through the ranks of Oda Nobunaga’s army, eventually to usurp him and finally to unify Japan, establish its feudal system, (isolating the samurai class) and lay the foundations for the Tokugawa administration that followed. He was fiercely ambitious in his foreign campaigns toward China and Korea - which were eventually to be his downfall and a shadow on his legacy. He was also, cunning, horrifyingly brutal and obsessive. An addendum to his legacy is his appearance in a contemporary anime series as a cartoon hero.

The relaxation (after 1864) of rules banning the direct depiction of historical characters allowed this series to be made. Yoshitsuya takes passages from two old hagiographies as the subject matter, depicting true and fanciful stories of victories and battles. The series is lavishly printed - complex and detailed with many colours and blocks, beautifully carved and imagined, each print is framed with a decorative border.  The series is often hard to come by, some prints being particularly rare.

In this extraordinary print, Yoshitsuya depicts a scene that could be from a contemporary manga or anime comic - gigantic Japanese cycads (sotetsu) appear to be overwhelming an army of soldiers armed with axes, whilst an unhappy shogun looks on. This is not a battle scene - the print depicts a legend that Oda Nobunaga desired these mysterious giant palms for his castle at Azuchi. It was soon reported that the cycads were moaning at night, saying, "Take me back to Sakai!" (the temple from whence they came).  Nobunaga came to listen, and the cries so infuriated him that he ordered his men to attack the plants with swords. The wounds gushed human-like blood, soaking the attackers. Nobunaga gave in and returned the plants to the temple. The print shows Oda Nobunaga at bottom right, (Harunaga-ko is an alias).

(Koko) Yoshitsuya was a pupil of Kuniyoshi’s, he specialised in Japanese history prints and this is one of his finest and most ambitious projects. His work is known for its historical detail. He died young, two years after this series was published.

The decorative border that appears on each print features the distinctive gourds of Hideyoshi's "thousand gourd" standard, a device used as a signature by Kuniyoshi and many of his pupils. The print is in fine condition, full size with original printed borders - colour and impression are also fine.

Signed  Ichieisai Yoshitsuya, published by Tsutaya.

36cm x 25cm.