In an epic scene from the Genpei War, three Minamoto generals, Kajiwara Kagesue (left) Sasaki Takatsuna (center) and Hatakayama Shigetada (right) cross the Uji River to challenge the forces of Minamoto no Yoshinaka. In 1184, Minamoto no Yoshinaka attempted to seize control of the Minamoto clan from his cousins Yoshitsune and Yoritomo. Though Yoshinaka destroyed the bridge over Uji River, an unfazed Yoshitsune leads his generals through the river on horseback to meet the battle on the far bank. Beneath fluttering standards, three horses raise their heads above the waves. The dark water churns around horse and man. Though this watery trudge evokes a sense of quiet, the arrow that flies towards Sasaki Takatsuna suggests the chaos of the battle that awaits them on the far bank.
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.
Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere. - Carl Sagan