Kuniyoshi Utagawa, The Great Battle of Yashima, Heike and Minamoto Warriors


Original Japanese woodblock prints.

Artist: Kuniyoshi Utagawa (1798-1861)
Title: The Great Battle of Yashima
Publisher: Iseya
Date: 1849-1852
Size: (L) 25.1 x 36.1 (C) 25.2 x 36.5 (R) 25.3 x 36.4 cm
Condition: Light wear on the edges and minor discoloration. Covered wormhole on the left-hand side panel and small wormhole that has been restored on the right-hand side panel.

The Battle of Yashima saw the Genpei War (1180-1885) approaching its final stages. Famously recounted in the medieval war epic, Tale of Heike, the vicious schisms between the Taira and Minamoto clans reached a climactic point at this decisive battle. Already ousted from the capital of Kyoto, the Taira clan are ambushed by the Minamoto. Led by their renowned general Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the startled Taira warriors are routed at sea.


This triptych shows the great Taira warrior Notonokami Noritsune on the edge of a boat. Fending off the arrows of Yoshitsune, he goes to grab his foe only to see Yoshitsune make a legendary leap to another boat and then mock him from a safe distance. His physical prowess was cemented early on, trained by the tengu, a mountain dwelling mythical figure. The fighting style of these winged entities is reflected in Yoshitsune's large leap. Noritsune shakes his fists in anger while Yoshitsune is seen at the bottom of print, managing to still par an enemy with his sword in mid-air. On the right-hand side, Benkei, Yoshitsune's legendary companion, is in the midst of another clash. Warrior boats cut in and out of the composition while threatening waves about to break add a cliff-hanger moment to the dramatic scene.

Kuniyoshi Utagawa (1797 - 1861)

Kuniyoshi Utagawa can without a doubt be considered the master of the warrior print genre. Born in Edo (today’s Tokyo) as the son of a silk-dyer, he had first-hand experience that later influenced the rich use of colour and textile patterns in his prints. His early talent and his drawings impressed the ukiyo-e print master Toyokuni I Utagawa and he was officially admitted to his studio in 1811, becoming one of his chief pupils. He remained an apprentice until 1814, at which time he was given the name ‘Kuniyoshi’ and set out as an independent artist.

His break-through came in 1827 with the series of ‘The 108 Heroes of The Tale of Suikoden’, which is based on a Chinese novel of the same name from the 14th century. It contains tales of about 108 rebels and heroic bandits that were very popular in Japan during Kuniyoshi’s lifetime, as their strong feelings of justice resonated with the Edo public with limited freedom and under strict government laws. A series of reforms in the 1840s banned the illustration of courtesans and kabuki actors in ukiyo-e. The government-created limitations became a kind of artistic challenge which actually encouraged Kuniyoshi's creativity by forcing him to find ways to veil criticism of the government allegorically. He also played a major role in tattoo designs in woodblock prints, with many of his works still being a source of inspiration for contemporary tattoo artists. 

The warriors and heroes Kuniyoshi continuously designed were extremely popular and gave the artist the nickname of ‘Kuniyoshi of Warrior Prints’. Dynamic bodies and stern expressions were characteristic to his warriors, lending them a powerful and strong look. The commercial success of his warriors gave Kuniyoshi the freedom to explore other subjects of ukiyo-e, such as animals, birds, flowers, beautiful women, monsters and ghosts. His compositions are replete with humour and often involve witty wordplay. His most spectacular triptychs of warriors resonate even in contemporary culture, with influence in modern graphic media such as manga. His most famous designs include ‘The Ghosts of Taira Attack Yoshitsune at Daimotsu Bay’ and ‘Princess Takiyasha Summons a Skeleton Spectre to Frighten Mitsukuni’.

Kuniyoshi was an excellent teacher and had numerous pupils who continued his branch of the Utagawa school. Among the most notable were Yoshitoshi, Yoshitora, Yoshiiku, Yoshikazu, Yoshitsuya, and Yoshifuji. As they became established as independent artists, many went on to develop highly innovative styles of their own.

More Information
Print FormatTriptych
ArtistKuniyoshi Utagawa (1797 - 1861)
SubjectSamurai & Male
Size(L) 25.1 x 36.1 (C) 25.2 x 36.5 (R) 25.3 x 36.4 cm