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Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳)


Kuniyoshi suikodenUtagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳) was the son of a silk dyer named Yanagiya Kichiemon. When he was about 12 years of age, Kuniyoshi was accepted as a student of Toyokuni I. His first known work is an illustrated book from 1814, and his first single-sheet print appeared in 1815. Although Kuniyoshi designed prints in a wide variety of subject areas (kabuki, women, landscapes, nature prints, humorous or satirical scenes, cats, surimono, shunga, and book illustrations), he is most recognized for his prints depicting warriors, scenes of historical figures and events, and legends.

The warrior prints (musha-e) of the artist Katsukawa Shuntei (1770-1820) apparently exerted some influence on the young Kuniyoshi. His first known heroic triptych was published in 1818, but he did not gain widespread fame and success until he rocked the printmaking world, beginning circa 1827, with his series Tsûzoku suikoden gôketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori (The 108 heroes of the Suikoden: 通俗水滸傳豪傑百八人之一個) in which he portrayed legendary Chinese heroes from a hugely popular saga, Tales of the Water Margin (水滸傳;, Ch., Sui Ho Chuan or Shui Hu Zhuan). Based on the fourteenth-century Chinese novel, The Suikoden was a rousing and bloody epic celebrating the exploits of a band of righteous outlaws led by Song Jiang, whose base of operations was an encampment by a marsh (the "water margin" of the title) on Mount Liang (Liangshan; Jap., Ryôsanpaku)

Kuniyoshi's series never reached the full complement of 108 heroes, as only 75 heroes appear on 74 known ôban-size sheets. A large majority of the figures fill the pictorial spaces dynamically, their expressive faces accentuating the individuality of each character. Moreover, the exotic costumes, the ersatz European-inspired chiaroscuro, the dazzling range of weaponry, the diversity of poses, and the commanding visual presence and bristling energy of the figures all helped fuel a Suikoden print-collecting craze in Edo and Osaka.

The design above is the center sheet of a triptych, here depicting Gyokukirin Roshungi (玉麒麟盧俊義; Ch., Lu Junyi, the Jade Unicorn). The other two sheets portray, on the right, Sekihakki Ryûtô (赤髪鬼劉唐; Ch., Liu Tang, the Red-haired Devil), and on the left, two figures, Hakutenchô Riô (撲天雕李應; Ch., Li Ying, the Swooping Hawk) and Bossharan Bokukô (設遮攔穆弘; Ch., Mu Hong, the Invincible). The subject of the scene is a fight between Roshungi (a wealthy man and skilled warrior from Beijing) and the other three protagonists who are members of rival gangs. After a very long battle, Roshungi is captured, whereupon the bandits try to recruit him. He refuses and returns to Beijing. Later in the story, Roshungi finally becomes a member of the Ryôsanpaku gang.

When the Tenpô reforms of 1842 banned prints of beautiful women and kabuki actors, prints depicting warriors and legends became the life-blood of artists like Kuniyoshi. As a result he issued several large series of warrior prints in the 1840s. Yet even historical subjects could prove dangerous if treated in the wrong manner. In 1843, when Kuniyoshi designed a very popular satirical triptych of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi and the earth spider, the woodblocks and remaining stocks of unsold prints were confiscated and destroyed, and Kuniyoshi was investigated and officially reprimanded.

KuniyoshiThe illustration shown here is from one of the series issued while the Tenpô Reforms were still casting a shadow over print production. Titled Genji kumo ukiyo-e awase ("A Comparison of Prints of the Floating World with the Cloudy Chapters of Genji"), it was published by Iseya Ichibei circa 1845-46. The series is apparently complete in 60 known designs, 54 for each chapter in the Genji monogatari ("Tale of Genji") plus 6 supplemental designs. The current design is number 31 (indicated in the lower left margin) corresponding to the Makibashira ("The Cypress Pillar") chapter, with its title shown in the middle of the scroll above, and the series title appearing at the top right on the scroll cover. The Genji-kô (Genji incense emblem) for chapter 31 is shown as a repeated pattern on the scroll surrounded by a poem. A descriptive text by Hanagasa Karitsu appears below the scroll at the far left.

After the great victory on April 25, 1185 at Danoura in which Minamoto no Yoritomo and his half brother Yoshitsune defeated the Taira clan, Yoritomo, who would be designated as the first shogun of Japan, became unjustly suspicious and jealous of the brilliant military exploits of his younger brother. He refused to allow Yoshitsune entry into the headquarters in Kamakura, and instead sent him off to Horikawa in Kyoto. Yoritomo then secretly dispatched a warrior monk named Tosabô Shôshun to assassinate Yoshitsune. The attackers were defeated and Shôshun was captured and beheaded by the legendary Benkei, the warrior priest and ally of Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune took flight from Yoritomo's warriors, but in a final battle at Koromogawa on May 16, 1189 he committed seppuku (ritual suicide) rather than be captured.

The scene in Kuniyoshi's print depicts Kurô Hangan Yoshitsune as he grasps a pillar on the balcony of the palace at Horikawa. This gesture represents an obvious pictorial pun on the cypress pillar of the Genji chapter. It also connects Yoshitsune with the metaphorical meaning of "big size" used commonly in traditional Japanese poetry for the title word makibashira. At the far middle left there are military banners rising through the mist, which belong to Tosabô Shôshun and his warriors. The heroic figure of Yoshitsune standing on the railing and defiantly observing his attackers while arrows strike all around him makes this one of the more successful designs from the series. ©1999-2019 by John Fiorillo

See also the discussion of a Kuniyoshi print used to illustrate the Reading of Inscriptions and Seals.


  • Clark, Timothy: Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2009.
  • Inagaki, S.: "Kuniyoshi's Caricatures and Edo Society," in: Schaap, R.(ed.): Heroes and Ghosts: Japanese Prints by Kuniyoshi. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 1998, pp. 241-242, fig. 17.
  • Klompmakers, Inge: Of Brigands and Bravery: Kuniyoshi's Heroes of the 'Suikoden'. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 1998, pp. 9-17.
  • Nagoya City Museum (along with Chiba City Museum of Art, Suntory Museum of Art, and Nihon Keizai Shinbun, Inc.), Tanjobi 200 nen kinnen Utagawa Kuniyoshi ten (Commemoration of the bicentenary of the birth of Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Exhibition catalog, 1996.
  • Robinson, B.W.: Kuniyoshi: The Warrior Prints. Oxford: Phaidon, 1982, pp. 22-24 and 129-130.
  • Varshavskaya, Elena: Heroes of the grand pacification: Taiheiki eiyû den. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2005.
  • Weinberg, David: Kuniyoshi: The faithful samurai. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2000.
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