In this mystical design, Kuniyoshi portrays the hero Inuyama Dosetsu from the epic Tale of Eight Dogs (Hakkenden). Dressed as a wandering priest, Dosetsu makes “magic” as he sits unscathed in the middle of a raging fire. The flames seem to consume the design in its entirety, showcasing Kuniyoshi’s innovative approach to composition. The impact of the design is enhanced through the skill of the printer, apparent in the oxidation and coloring of the flames. With its furling flames and fluttering fabric, this design is one of the most dramatic prints of the Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido series. Though this series takes its name from one of Japan’s ancient highways, the landscape is reduced to a scalloped circle in the top left corner, secondary to the legend at hand.
Other impressions of this print can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the British Museum.
The son of silk dyer, Kuniyoshi Utagawa was born into the Igusa family in Edo. Little is known about his very early years, though he is said to have shown remarkable talent from a young age. Kuniyoshi began his ukiyo-e career as a pupil of Shunei. At age 14 he was accepted to study the art of woodblock printing under Toyokuni I and, in time, would become one of his most successful students. In 1814, he left Toyokuni’s studio to pursue a career as an independent Japanese ukiyo-e artist. Initially, he had little success, selling tatami mats in order to support himself. However, his fortunes changed in 1827 with his dramatic series 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. From that point on, the public hungered for his portrayals of famous samurai and legendary heroes. Kuniyoshi worked in all genres, producing some brilliant landscapes and charming bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women). He died in the spring of 1861 from complications of a stroke.
In direct contrast to the peaceful views of a scenic Japan provided by Hiroshige and Hokusai, the following decades saw a rise of the fierce, fearsome and fantastical in ukiyo-e. Kuniyoshi welcomed this changing public taste. He had a ravenous imagination and the full scope of his work reveals an aesthetic sensibility capable of assimilating almost any experience. No doubt, however, his particular genius felt most at home in the world of martial glory, where epic battles decided the fate of empires and fierce warriors clashed to the death. Utagawa Kuniyoshi's prints were so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.