Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Daji Possessed by the Nine Tailed Fox Spirit in China


Artist: Kuniyoshi Utagawa (1797-1861)
Title: Daji possessed by Nine Tailed Fox Spirit in China
Series title: The Magic Fox of the Three Countries
Publisher: Iseya Chusuke
Date: 1849-1850
Size: 35.7 x 24.7 cm
Provenance: B.W. Robinson Collection

Original Japanese woodblock print.

Traditionally, foxes are regarded as deceitful creatures in Japan as they possess the ability to take the form of human beings. One famous story involves Tamamo no Mae, a legendary fox from Japanese mythology that Kuniyoshi based this series on.

According to the narrative, the nine-tail fox first appeared in China and possessed Daji, concubine of Shang dynasty's last ruler King Zhou. She enchanted the king and brought upon a reign of terror that led to a rebellion that ended the Shang dynasty. The spirit of the fox then travelled to ancient India and became Lady Kayo, concubine of the crown prince Banzoku, causing him to be a ruthless, brutal ruler. Once again defeated, the spirit of the fox travelled back to China and then appeared in Japan as Tamamo no Mae, the most favoured courtesan of Emperor Toba. The emperor gradually became very ill, overwhelmed by the fox's powers. The identity of the Tamamo no Mae is eventually exposed and two warriors defeat the wicked spirit that turned into a stone.

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 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 FormatOban (Vertical)
ArtistKuniyoshi Utagawa
SubjectBeauty & Female, Male & Female, Ghosts & Religion, Animal & Birds
Dimensions35.7 x 24.7 cm
Condition ReportTrimmed, light wear and toiling, holes restored.