Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Minamoto no Tametomo Shooting Enemy at Izu Isles


Artist: Kuniyoshi Utagawa (1797-1861)
Title: Minamoto no Tametomo Shooting Enemy at Izu Isles
Publisher: Tsujiya Yasubei
Date: 1843-1846
Size: (L) 25.4 x 37.6, (C) 25.3 x 37.2, (R) 25.8 x 36.9 cm

Original Japanese woodblock print.

Minamoto no Tametomo (1139 – 1170) was a samurai who fought in the Hogen Rebellion of 1156. He is known in the epic chronicles as a powerful archer and it is said that he once sunk an entire Taira ship with a single arrow by puncturing its hull below the waterline. Many legends say that his left arm was longer than his right, enabling a longer draw of the arrow, and more powerful shots. After the rebellion, one account says that he was banished to the island of Oshima in the Izu Islands. Though he is said to have killed himself at the age of thirty-one in the first recorded instance of ritual suicide, or seppuku, the Edo novelist Bakin writes of how he instead made his escape to Okinawa, which he promptly subjugated.

This print by Kuniyoshi shows Tametomo sinking the leading ship of his enemy Mochimitsu's fleet with his arrow. Tametomo's mistress, Sasaraye, is portrayed in the centre, carrying a naginata. Perched on top of a cliff is one of Tametomo's retainers, Oniyasha, looking on at the sinking ship.

Kuniyoshi Utagawa

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 Print’. 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
Artist NameKuniyoshi Utagawa
TitleMinamoto no Tametomo Shooting Enemy at Izu Isles
SubjectSamurai & Male, Male & Female
Dimensions(L) 25.4 x 37.6, (C) 25.3 x 37.2, (R) 25.8 x 36.9 cm
Condition ReportPinholes.