Haunted at Sea: The Tale of Yoshitsune and the Taira Ghosts

Japanese myths brim with ghosts and demons, animals with magical powers, mischievous spirits, and mysterious realms where humans and supernatural creatures live side by side. Known as yokai, these otherworldly figures arise from Japanese folklore. Though they can be terrifying and malevolent, not all yokai are evil. Some may  even bring good luck if they cross your path. These fantastical tales captured public interest and sparked the imagination of ukiyo-e artists during the Edo period. Artists such as Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi, recognized masters of the bizarre, portray these tales of the supernatural with humor and horror. These prints invite you to indulge your imagination and feel the chill of fear creep up your spine as they  transport you to the fantastical world of ghosts, spirits, and demons.

Kuniyoshi, Taira Ghosts Attacking Yoshitsune in Daimotsu Bay. 1849-1852. Ronin Gallery.
Kuniyoshi, Taira Ghosts Attacking Yoshitsune in Daimotsu Bay. 1849-1852. Ronin Gallery.

In the triptych Taira  Ghosts Attacking Yoshitsune in Daimotsu Bay (1849-1852) , Kuniyoshi presents the legend of Yoshitsune and the vengeful ghosts of the Taira clan. The tale begins in 1185 with the final battle between the Minamoto and Taira clans. As described in the quasi-historical Tale of Heike, the powerful clans clashed  for the last time in a vicious sea battle. In the course of the battle, the Minamoto clan identified and attacked the ship carrying the heir and leaders of the Taira clan. As the Taira leaders sunk into their watery graves, the Minamoto clan secured victory at sea and power in Japan.

Soon after this victory, Yoshitsune of the victorious Minamoto was forced to leave his home due to the jealous wrath of his brother Yoritomo. The omens were poor as Yoshitsune readied his escape to the island of Shikoku, yet he could not risk another night under the eye of his brother. As Yoshitsune and his followers sailed through the Straits of Shimonoseki, they found themselves caught in a violent storm. The water began to churn, tossing the boat back and forth as the waves rose ever higher. The sky turned dark, and from the depths of the clouds emerged the vengeful ghosts of Taira soldiers drowned at the battle of Dannoura. Beneath these horrifying specters, Musashibo Benkei, a favorite hero of the Minamoto-Taira wars and devout follower of Yoshitsune, took to the front of the ship. Prayer beads in hand, Benkei dispelled the ghosts and calmed the sea with his prayers.

Kuniyoshi presents not the moment of salvation, but the pinnacle of dread in this legend. Though Benkei has assumed his position at the front of the ship, he has yet to assure its safe passage. As waves rock the ship towards the center of the triptych, Yoshitsune’s followers frantically grasp the sail, pulling it down amidst the howling wind. Jagged tendrils of white surf crash around the boat, emphasizing the angry churning of the sea. The rich shading of the water suggests the frightening depth of the water below the boat. Yet, the real horror rises from the horizon. The ghosts of the Taira darken the sky, some horned, others waving swords at the frantic occupants on the ship. The ghosts tower in the sky, menacing the seemingly doomed Yoshitsune Minamoto and his followers.

As with most legends, there are different versions and diverse interpretations of this tale. In the noh play Benkei in a Boat (Funa Benkei), Yoshitsune’s loyal follower clutches his prayer beads and prays at the front of the ship, causing the vengeful spirits to dissipate and the churning sea to calm. In the 14th century, Chronicles of Yoshitsune (Gikeiki), Benkei confronts the ghosts by different means. The story tells of Benkei shooting an arrow adorned with white bird feathers towards the sky to scatter the menacing spirits. Even today, this haunting tale persists in local legend. There are tales of cries coming from the water and fires glowing above the waves at the site of this legendary battle. The spirits of the Taira warriors are said to remain restless. Some say that they are present in the crabs bearing markings similar to samurai masks sometimes found on the beaches.

Looking for another scare this Halloween? Visit Yokai: Ghosts, Demons, and Spirits to explore more otherworldly images. The online exhibition can be found here.

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