Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, Mongaku's Penitence at the Waterfall, Vertical Diptych


Artist: Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839-1892)
Title: Mongaku's Penitence at the Waterfall
Publisher: Matsui Eikichi
Date: 1885
Size: Top: 25.7 x 36.5 Bottom: 25.7 x 37.4 cm

Original Japanese woodblock print.

In the late 1880s Yoshitoshi designed a series of vertical diptychs that became some of the most outstanding examples of his work. The dynamic and dramatic setting of his characters, as well as the fine printing and subject choice are proof of Yoshitoshi's passion for the unusual, the obscure and mythological.


This print shows the monk Mongaku Shonin in repentance beneath a waterfall. The scene is based on the legend of Endo Morito, the secular name of Mongaku who was originally a samurai guard of the imperial family in Kyoto.


In his late teenage years, Morito fell in love with Kesa, the beautiful wife of his samurai colleague Watanabe Wataru. She rejected his persistent entreaties until one night she agreed to receive him in her house, where she said he would find her husband asleep in a room and could kill him. However, too late, Morito realised that the person he killed was actually the lady herself, who had put herself in her husband’s place to save her honour. Morito repented his evil ways and became a monk, assuming the new name of Mongaku. As a harsh penance, he prayed under the waterfall of Nachi in Kumano (today's Mie and Wakayama prefectures) in the freezing winter for twenty-one days, reciting incantations to the deity Fudo Myoo.


In Yoshitoshi's design, the rising mist of the waterfall is embossed, animating the crashing water. The waterfall is set at an angle, creating a deep perspective at the top while at the forefront a praying Mongaku is pulled by Seitaka, one of Fudoo Myo's child attendants.

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 FormatKakemono-e (Scroll)
ArtistYoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839 - 1892)
SubjectMale & Female, Ghosts & Religion
SizeTop: 25.7 x 36.5 Bottom: 25.7 x 37.4 cm
Condition ReportSome soiling and minor stains. Slightly worn top corners. Darkened edges. A light crease mark at the bottom of the top panel. A few thin areas.