In a stampede of weapon-wielding sea creatures, Kuniyoshi captures the popular story of Princess Tamatori and the sacred jewel. The Tang emperor presented a sacred jewel as a gift to his father-in-law, Fujiwara no Kamatari (614-669). A powerful storm wrecked the ship that was delivering the offering to Japan, and the jewel sank to the Dragon Palace in the depths below. In the hope of retrieving the lost jewel, Kamatari’s son Fuhito marries the young ama (female pearl diver) Tamamo, who dives into the sea to retrieve the precious jewel. As the Dragon King’s court chases the diver, she cuts open her breast to hide the jewel. Though she saves the jewel, she dies from her wounds when she returns to shore. Kuniyoshi portrays the story of Tamamo, or Princess Tamatori, with strength and determination, jewel in hand as she nears the far left edge of the print. As she glances behind her, knife raised, all manner of sea creatures pursue her, their king furiously stirring the sea overhead.
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. His imagery was so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.
The prints choose whom they love and then there is no salvation but surrender. - Frank Lloyd