A Closer Look: Yorimasa and the Nue

Written by
Madison Folks
Published on
October 26, 2021 at 1:21:37 PM PDT October 26, 2021 at 1:21:37 PM PDTth, October 26, 2021 at 1:21:37 PM PDT

From vengeful spirits to ghastly monsters, ukiyo-e teem with supernatural beings and spine-chilling tales. As blue-tinged ghosts carry out their grudges and giant spiders ensnare heroes in their webs, these stories enthrall audiences past and present. With Halloween upon us, we turn to one such tale–the story of Yorimasa and the nue–as told by two masters of the fearsome and fantastic, Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi. The nue is a chimeral monster with the head of a monkey, the body of a badger (or tanuki), the legs of a tiger, and a hissing snake as a tail, depending on the source. Though this monster is mentioned in several sources during the late Heian period, this particular story can be found in the 14th-century classic The Tale of Heike.

Kuniyoshi. "In 1153 at Konoe's Palace the Skilled Archer Yorimasa Shooting the Nue." c.1842. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery.

In 1153, a weary Emperor Konoe could find no rest. For each night as evening fell, dark clouds settled upon the roof of the palace and the emperor slipped into hellish nightmares, punctuated only by haunting cries of something unseen. Despite the best efforts of his trusted advisors, neither medicines nor prayers could offer the emperor a reprieve from these nights of terror. Plagued by sleep deprivation, the emperor sought a more aggressive approach–to locate and silence his mysterious tormentor. The skilled archer Minamoto no Yorimasa rose to the task. That evening, Yorimasa waited as darkness enveloped the palace grounds, watching for the unwelcome visitor to appear on the palace roof. Suddenly, Yorimasa spotted the beast through black clouds. Raised upon the limbs of a tiger, a monkey’s face grew from the body of a badger (or tanuki), while the tail took the form of a snake. Yorimasa steadied his arrow at the mythical nue. This was no simple arrow, but a special arrow, crafted from the feathers of a mountain bird and gifted to Yorimasa by his ancestor, Minamoto no Yorimitsu. The arrow flew straight into the beast, knocking it from its rooftop perch. Yorimasa’s retainer I no Hayata rushed to the wounded nue and finished it off with his sword. With the monster slain, the cry of a cuckoo echoed throughout the grounds, symbolizing a return of peace to the palace. To express the depth of his thanks, the emperor gifted Yorimasa the famous sword known as Shishio.

Yoshitoshi. "I no Hayata Killing the New at the Imperial Palace" from the series Thirty-six Ghosts and Strange Apparitions. 1890. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery.

Yoshitoshi. "A Poem by Yorimasa" from the series One Hundred Views of the Moon. 1888. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery.

While Kuniyoshi’s design dramatizes the tale from a distance, Yoshitoshi takes the opposite approach in two designs that illustrate this story. In the print "I no Hayata Killing the Nue at the Imperial Palace" (1890), Hayata and the nue are seemingly intertwined, shrouded in dark clouds as the warrior throws the final blow. While the arrow that protrudes from the monster’s throat recalls the larger story, Yoshitoshi creates an eerily intimate scene of the nue’s last moments. In the second design, "A Poem by Yorimasa" (1888), Yoshitoshi evokes a similar intimacy, but this time through Yorimasa and the story’s resolution. With his bow laid beside him, Yorimasa looks up towards the cuckoo that was said to chirp after the nue’s death. The design is quiet and still, with little hint of the danger and drama just moments before.

For more tales of the fantastic and frightening, explore our annual selection of supernatural prints here. Want to explore more spooky stories through woodblock prints? Be sure to visit A Closer Look: Moon of the Lonely House, A Closer Look: Moon Above the Sea at Daimotsu Bay, and Haunted at Sea: The Tale of Yoshitsune and the Taira Ghosts.