Kuniyoshi, The More than 60 Provinces of Japan - Shimidzu no Kwanja Yoshitaka and a Giant Rat

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) The More than Sixty Provinces of Japan: Shimidzu no Kwanja Yoshitaka and a Giant Rat,  1845. Oban.

This dramatic print by Kuniyoshi is part of the many collaborative projects carried out by ukiyo-e artists in the nineteenth century.  In The More than Sixty Provinces of Japan, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi were commissioned to illustrate the provinces of Japan… except they were really illustrating historic characters and well known kabuki actors. These mitate pictures were an attempt to circumvent the strict censorship of the failing Tokugawa shogunate. Laws were imposed to force 'moral' rectitude on a restive population. Fear about political parallels being made to historic characters meant that the traditional subjects of the woodblock artists were severely restricted, hence these apparently anodyne subjects.

In this piece, Kuniyoshi represents the historic character Shimidzu no Kwanja Yoshitaka , son of Yoshinaka, who had sent him as a hostage to Yoritomo (the Shogun) during the Heike war. He tried to avenge his father by killing the Shogun, but failed, and was beheaded. According to legend, the spirit of a friendly Yamabushi (mountain hermit) took the shape of a big rat to help him in his enterprise, but ineffectively. The print is normally seen as a combat between Yoshitaka and an evil spirit but this is not the case. The ‘real’ subject of the print is the spectacularly beautiful Lake Biwa, seen in the cartouche above the figures being admired by a pretty woman.

A fine and dramatic print, quite rare, the colour and impression are fine. The condition is good except for some thinning and loss to the upper and lower right corners.

36 x 25 cm.