Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, Biwa Player, Music, Sengoku Period, Samurai


Original Japanese woodblock print. 

Artist: Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839-1892)
Title: Uesugi Kenshin and the Blind Biwa Player
Publisher: Sugiyama
Date: 1893

Dimensions: (L) 23 x 34.5 (C) 23.1 x 34.5 (R) 23.2 x 34.6 cm
Condition report: Backing. Prints once conjoined and now separated. Some creases on the right panel. Some faint smudges and thinned paper on the centre panel.


biwa hoshi musician, also known as a blind lute priest, performs for the warlord Uesgui Kenshin (1530 – 1578) and his retainers. Kenshin is seated on a decorative cushion on the right hand side, and holds a fan whilst contemplatively listening to the music. The lute priests were patronised by Japan’s unifier Tokugawa Ieyasu and specialised in performing narratives from Japan’s epic war story the Tale of Heike, an account of the battles between the Minamoto and Taira clan in the 12th century.


Here, the performer recounts the story of the slaying of Nue, a legendary demon which appears in the Tale of Heike. The eerie appearance of the Nue shrieking and enveloped in a thick black smog frightens the Emperor Konoe (1139 – 1155) into ill health. The warrior Minamoto no Yorimasa (1106–1180) is called upon to slay it using an arrow from his ancestor and the tail feathers of a mountain bird. Yorimasa shoots it out of the sky and is then rewarded with the Shishio sword for restoring the emperor’s health. Hearing such tales of past military exploits served to boost morale and became an important past time for the warrior class during periods of martial instability.

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839 - 1892)

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka was one of the leading woodblock print artists during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and one of the last to work in the traditional ukiyo-e manner. Born in Edo (today’s Tokyo), he showed a strong interest in classical Japanese literature and history. When he was 11, he became a student at Kuniyoshi Utagawa’s studio. Under his teacher’s guidance, he showed exquisite draftsmanship and learned how to draw from life, something not necessarily part of the training schools of painting and illustration in Japan.

Yoshitoshi’s rise as an artist came at a time when Japan was faced with great changes and challenges. The new Meiji era (1868-1912) brought many conflicts between those loyal to tradition and those wishing to embark on a process of forced modernisation and adoption of western values. These sentiments, along with having witnessed some of the violent uprisings, influenced his early career, with intense, often disturbing images that reflect turmoil and pain. Even so, many other prints from this early period show whimsical touches, with reinterpretation of themes seen in his teacher Kuniyoshi’s works. With deep cultural roots, Yoshitoshi’s style was dynamic and distinctive: he was known for experimentation in style and genre, as well as for his innovative works. He worked on series depicting kabuki actors, bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), warriors, monsters and ghosts. Supernatural themes abound in his later work, showing a fascination for old Japanese folk stories.

The publishing of Yoshitoshi’s most popular series 'One Hundred Aspects of the Moon' commenced in 1885 and spanned a wide variety of subjects, such as warrior, animals, ghosts, natural phenomena, beauties and others. The artist’s early tendency for gore and horror was replaced by images of lyricism, calm, spirituality and psychological depth. 'Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners', published in 1888, shows Yoshitoshi’s ability to portray emotions like no other artist of his time, presenting women of various background and eras in Japanese history, each with distinct traits.

In 1889, the series 'New Forms of Thirty-six Ghosts' started to be published, showing images of apparitions, mostly based on folklore and plays, depicted powerfully and imaginatively. This was, perhaps, a catharsis for the artist who claimed to have seen ghosts and strongly believed in supernatural beings. Many of Yoshitoshi’s late works were acclaimed at a time when western techniques of mass production such as photography were making the woodblock obsolete, breaking new ground by portraying intense human feelings through a traditional medium. He became a master teacher and had notable pupils such as Toshikata Mizuno and Toshihide Migita.

More Information
Print FormatTriptych
ArtistYoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839 - 1892)
SubjectSamurai & Male
Size(L) 23 x 34.5 (C) 23.1 x 34.5 (R) 23.2 x 34.6 cm