In one of his most iconic triptychs, Kuniyoshi draws from Bakin’s novel Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki to depict Minamoto no Tametomo’s supernatural rescue from a storm. Defeated in 1156 during the Hogen Rebellion, Tametomo was exiled to Izu. He soon escaped to Kyushu where he plotted the defeat of the Taira clan. As he sets sail to Kyoto to carry out his plan, a wild storm threatens his boat. In this fantastic print, Kuniyoshi conflates the three moments that lead to Tametomo’s dramatic rescue. To the far right, Tametomo’s wife drowns herself to quell the storm. After her sacrifice, Emperor Sutoku summons the tengu that descend from the left edge of the triptych to save Tametomo and their only son, Sutemaru. The infant is protected in the arms of Tametomo’s faithful retainer Kiheiji, who rides on the back of a crocodile-shark (wanizame).
Other impressions of this print can be found in the British Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Chazen Museum of Art.
About the artist
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. Kuniyoshi's prints were so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.
It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process. - Max Eastman