Yoshitoshi, The Assassination of Li Naosuke

Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892) The Assassination of Ii Naosuke, 1873. Oban triptych.

There is a great deal of complexity in this very rare print by Yoshitoshi from 1873. Most people with a knowledge of Japanese prints would assume that this was a print of the night attack from the closing scenes of the Chushingura - the stories of the Loyal 47 Ronin. So exactly does Yoshitoshi use the composition, the setting, the distribution of figures and night time snowscape that it is impossible not to see that subject when viewing this very different event - the assassination of the unpopular reformer and government fixer Ii Naosuke.

The use of this precedent is at odds with more or less everything in Yoshitoshi’s work - I’m thinking here of his natural tendency to design prints which foreground the action, which focus on single figure events, which play to his great strengths as an illustrator of physiognomy. There must therefore, be a reason for him to depart his normal way of doing things and to allude to the famous events of the eighteenth century.

The print depicts the Sakuradamon Incident of 1860. Ii Naosuke (1815 - 1860) was the chief negotiator for the various treaties that ended the isolation of Japan and ushered in (via violent and bloody unrest) the modern era in Japan. His reforms, against the backdrop of the crumbling shogunate were fiercely opposed by the traditional caste of Samurai and Daimyo. As a consequence a rebellion of seventeen Ronin (leaderless Samurai) issued a statement of intent and assassinated Ii outside Edo Castle. It can be argued that the incident caused the collapse of the Tokugawa regime and the establishment of the Meiji Empire in 1868. Yoshitoshi was a troubled man who was at once fiercely supportive of the old Japan and an instinctive reactionary whilst also being the most modern of the ukiyo-e artists. By recalling the assassination of Moronao in 1702 in the composition and the design of the print, he is quite clearly creating an association with the heroes of the Chushingura - revealing his persistent loyalty to the ancien-regime.

One of the earliest uses of this format is a triptych of Kunisada’s from the 1830’s, and the several versions that Yoshitoshi’s teacher Kuniyoshi made of the subject throughout his career. In this complex and rare print we see Yoshitoshi not only acknowledge the political perspective (a dangerous departure still in 1872) but also his continuing debt to the now defunct Utagawa School.

It’s a beautiful print, the gorgeous richness of the night sky and the snow flakes recalling some of Hiroshige’s landscapes. The condition is very good, the colour and impression both fine.

75cm x 37cm.