Asahina Saburo is a legendary hero known for his immense strength and spectacular swimming ability. In this print, Kuniyoshi captures one of Asahina’s most famous exploits. At the turn of the 13th century, the shogun Minamoto no Yoriie took a tour of the seaside of Kotsubo, where he encountered Asahina. Aware of Asahina’s remarkable abilities, Minamoto no Yoriie requested that the hero show off his swimming ability. Though the hero impressed onlookers with his speed and endurance, he wowed the crowd as he wrestled with crocodile sharks amidst the waves. Asahina pulls the crocodile sharks from the water, prying open its powerful jaws with his bare hands. As the second crocodile shark lurches towards the hero, Kuniyoshi juxtaposes the whitecapped surf in the foreground with a placid distant landscape.
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.
An artist should use freely whatever materials he pleases. In the case of the woodblock print, he simply goes one step further and employs a block instead of a brush... - Watanabe Shozaburo, 1916