From fierce samurai to legendary heroes, musha-e (武者絵) celebrate the traditional Japanese warrior. Translating to “warrior pictures,” this genre of ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) is marked by consistent fluidity between fact and fiction, truth and fable. As they conflate history, legend, literature and theater, these prints offer fantastic renderings of familiar characters from Japanese culture.
The first musha-e emerged in 1646. Recalling raging battles and noble samurai, these prints considered themes of revenge, honor, envy and rage. While Kabuki theater presented similar themes and stories, musha-e remained closer to the original military tales rather than their modern stage interpretations. These classics narratives included Heike Monogatari (Tale of Heike), Genpei Sesuki (The Rise and Fall of the Genji and the Heike), among other tales of the civil strife of centuries past. While warrior subject matter did appear in the yakusha-e or “actor print” genre, these images are distinct from the musha-e. These theatrical prints focus on the actor playing the role of the warrior rather than the historical or legendary figure.
Though the decorated courtesans of the yoshiwara and the dramatic actors of the Kabuki theater enjoyed enormous popularity in ukiyo-e, the warriors of the past inhabited a niche market. While the actors and courtesans were the celebrities of the moment, musha-e dealt in the past, and often a distant past at that. As historical subject matter post-1592 was strictly forbidden by the Shogunate, 18th century musha-e had no fresh subject matter to work with. The genre played its greatest hits, the gunki monogatari (historical war tales) of long past to both avoid censure and to satisfy a nostalgic, if limited, audience.
In 1827, Kuniyoshi released his print series One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Suikoden and radically changed the musha-e genre. The Suikoden is the Japanese adaptation of the 14th century Chinese classic, Shuihuzhuan (Stories of the Water Margin). Translated in 1805 by Takizawa Bakin, this tale of 108 bandit warriors stressed camaraderie and loyalty as each warrior operates on their own code of justice, often to highly violent ends. Inciting a mania in Edo, Kuniyoshi’s Suikoden prints brought musha-e into unprecedented vogue. As a blatantly anti-authority story, the Suikoden resounded with the residents of Edo’s floating world, yet avoided the censure of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Heightening the drama of the warrior genre through copious blood flow, dynamic postures, and dismembered body parts, Kuniyoshi rightly earned the nickname Musha-e no Kuniyoshi or “Kuniyoshi of the Warrior Prints.”
The warrior craze peaked with the passing of the Tenpo Reforms in 1842. In an attempt to quell the perceived luxury of ukiyo-e prints, the Shogunate banned the reigning genres of bijin-ga (beautiful women) and yakusha-e (actors). Historical and legendary subject matter quickly filled the void. The heroes of the Suikoden remained enormously popular, but were joined by familiar historical and legendary heroes, as well as the modern “warriors” of Edo (See our series Ink, Banditry, and Bushido to learn more about these modern heroes). Kuniyoshi reigned as the master of warrior prints and fostered a new generation of musha-e masters, including the celebrated Yoshitoshi. The musha-e genre thrived projecting stories of strength and courage as foreign influence began to pour into Japan and the Tokugawa Shogunate began to crumble. Like a form of catharsis, the warriors of the musha-e sought to exorcise demons of a country in transition.
Just as bijin traded layered kimono for hoops skirts and lace umbrellas, the warrior identity shifted from samurai and folk heroes, to soldiers and revered generals during the Meiji period. By 1905, senso-e, or “war pictures,” emerged as a modern answer to the musha-e genre. Traditional armor and family feuds faded from printmaking, rapidly replaced by Western-style uniforms, guns, and military exploits. As James King explains in the book Japanese Warrior Prints 1646-1905, senso-e, though an evolution of musha-e, is a distinct genre. While musha-e evoke nostalgia, firmly entrenched in the past, senso-e concentrate on the contemporary. Presenting battle victories of the Sino-Japanese War or the Russo-Japanese War, these works served as propaganda for a rapidly modernizing Japan.
So where do we see musha-e today? Direct iconographic links can be found in the traditional Japanese tattooing. Even today, the heroes of the Suikoden remain enormously popular subject matter in the tattoo community (As seen in the drawing of Kaosho Roschin by Horiyoshi III, Japan’s foremost tattoo artist). More broadly, the genre of musha-e serves as a critical historical reference tool of Japanese history and culture. These prints detail armor and weaponry, reveal battle strategies of ancient Japan, and preserve heroic tales and personas for centuries to come.
 King, James, and Yuriko Iwakiri. Japanese Warrior Prints, 1646-1905. Leiden: Hotei, 2007. Print.
Want to learn more about Japanese warrior culture?
Indulge your curiosity in the world of the samurai at the Peabody Museum’s Samurai and Culture of Japan’s Great Peace. One of our 5 top shows of the summer, this exhibition combines artifacts from the collections of the Peabody Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, Sterling Memorial Library and Yale Collection of Musical Instruments to present the glory, if faded necessity, of the 19th century samurai.
Curious about the not-so-typical warriors of Edo?
Be sure to check out our series Ink, Banditry and Bushido to learn about Japan’s outlaw heroes of 18th century and today.
Part 1 - Firefighting to Street Fighting: The Hikeshi
Part 2 - Otokodate: The Honorable Outlaw?
Part 3 - Fact vs. Fiction: Origins of the Yakuza
King, James, and Yuriko Iwakiri. Japanese Warrior Prints, 1646-1905. Leiden: Hotei, 2007. Print.
“Musha-e.” Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System, 2001. Web. 25 June 2015.