Kuniyoshi, Ataka Barrier in Kaga Province, Benkei Strikes Yoshitsune

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Ataka Barrier in Kaga Province, Benkei Strikes Yoshitsune, 1856. Oban triptych.

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A beautifully preserved Kuniyoshi triptych, with fresh, bright colours and crisp impressions. The story of Benkei and Yoshitsune is well known enough; Benkei, reknowned as a phenomenally strong warrior, had secured Gojo 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 be passed on for 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. This print depicts their heroic flight from the army of Yoritomo.

Yoshitsune and his eleven retainers have disguised themselves as monks in order to escape north. They hear that the Shogun’s forces are stopping all itinerant monks at the checkpoints and interrogating them. At  Ataka, Benkei suggests that his master Yoshitsune disguise himself as a porter to the others in order to trick the guards. The sleight nearly works, but in a confrontation, Benkei is obliged to abuse and strike his master for the sake of authenticity. This is of course a great dishonour, but Yoshitsune forgives Benkei and praises his quick thinking after they successfully make their escape.

A very nice print, colour, impression and condition are all fine. A copy of this triptych is in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.