In A Closer Look we'll consider the legends behind some of the most influential designs of ukiyo-e. This week, we'll turn our attention to Yoshitoshi's "Moon Above the Sea at Daimotsu Bay" (1886) from the famed series One Hundred Views of the Moon.
Yoshitoshi, Moon Above the Sea at Daimotsu Bay: Benkei from the series 100 Views of the Moon, 1886. Ronin Gallery.
In this print, Yoshitoshi draws on Tale of Heike, a cornerstone of Japanese literature. This historical epic chronicles the centuries long rivalry between the Minamoto (or Genji) and the Taira (or Heike) clans and has inspired plays, prints and novels since the 12th century. According to legend, the Taira finally fell to the Minamoto clan in 1185 in the naval battle of Dannoura off the coast of Western Japan. Yoshitoshi depicts a scene that soon followed this defeat, where the Minamoto hero Yoshitsune sailed to Shikoku to escape his half-brother Yoritomo. Out at sea, a storm of supernatural power surged. The sea churned violently as the ghosts of the slain and drowned Taira soldiers sought revenge on Yoshitsune. The ships seemed destined for a watery grave when Benkei, a warrior priest and loyal companion of Yoshitsune, took to the front of the ship. Clutching his prayer beads, he uttered prayers, exorcising the hateful spirits and returning them to their resting place. The storm subsided and the ships safely arrived at their destination.
This ghostly incident provided a powerful theme for ukyo-e artists. Yoshitoshi's mentor Kuniyoshi also produced multiple interpretations of Benkei's heroic moment. This legend continues to haunt the shore even today. Tales from the coast tell of crabs that house the vengeful spirits of the Taira warriors, recount strange noises echoing along the beach, and describe sightings of oni-bi or "demon-fires" along the shoreline.
In this print, Yoshitoshi does not represent the Taira as embodied ghosts: though ghostly shadows cloud the golden light of the moon, they do not assume human form. Instead, the only figurative presence in this print is that of Benkei, poised and bright against the infinite darkness of the waves. The ship juts into the image, vulnerable and surrounded by cresting waves, anxious to pull the vessel beneath its inky depths. Though his robes whip in the wind and the waves ominously crest white, Benkei stares confidently into the oncoming surge. Later in Yoshitoshi's career, he shifted his focus from the climax of an event to the emotional struggle of the individual. Here, Yoshitoshi creates a portrait of unwavering bravery and fierce loyalty in the face of devastation. Though those familiar with the tale know that Benkei will save the ships, in this moment, the outcome is uncertain.