Kunichika, Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Tengu

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Tengu, 1880’s. Oban triptych.

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This very nice triptych by Kunichika shows the great hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune in conference, surrounded by a backdrop of mythical creatures called tengu. The print is a kabuki piece; the characters are actors performing on a shallow stage; the tengu - with their wings and gnarled feet and ferocious beaks - are a painted backdrop and the rolled split bamboo blinds are part of the stage scenery.

Tengu are yokai (ghosts) who take the form of birds of prey and usually appear as either a large, monstrous bird or a human with a long nose. They were originally considered harbingers of war but eventually were viewed as dangerous yet protective spirits of mountains and forests. Early depictions of tengu show them capable of taking a human-like form, but retaining their avian wings, head or beak. They are sometimes also considered to be the ghosts of people who had excessive pride in life and, as Buddhists, are unable to go to heaven or hell. The tengu pictured in shadowy tones are dressed as Buddhist priests with the distinctive cap on their heads.

Ushiwakamaru is the juvenile name of the great hero Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159 - 1189) from the literary legend, Heike Monogatari. Yoshitsune has parallels with the English folk hero Robin Hood; and his is a tragic and very famous story in Japan. His father was persecuted by the rival Taira Clan and Yoshitsune was brought up in a monastery. Legend has it that he was then taught the secrets of fighting by the Tengu before taking up rebellion against his father’s old enemies. Yoshitsune is usually pictured fighting the warrior monk Benkei at Gojo Bridge. Benkei, known as a phenomenally strong man and warrior, has secured the bridge with the intention of relieving 1000 samurai of their swords. Yoshitsune is his 1000th victim. Yoshitsune, though slight, defeats the giant man using Tengu fighting skills. Benkei becomes his loyal protector and between them they lead an armed rebellion against the Taira, establishing Yoshitsune’s brother as the first national Shogun - a position that would last 650 years until the19th century. Yoshitsune was betrayed by his brother and later killed himself and his family at the siege of Koromogawa no tate.

In the print we see Yoshitsune, holding the distinctive fighting fan in his hand, possibly recounting his youth - represented by the painted backdrop. What is exceptional about the print is the preservation, colour and impression are quite superb. This is a fresh and early impression, exquisitely printed with flashes of mica and the notable inclusion of the mythical beasts in the background.

36cm x 71cm.