Renowned for his unearthly power, Raiko, also known as Minamoto no Yorimitsu, is among Japan’s most popular warriors. In this haunting design, Kuniyoshi bisects the composition along a sweeping diagonal, delineating the realm of demons and that of the mortals ensnared in the Earth Spider’s web. In the top right corner, Raiko is lost in a deep sleep. He dreams of the Earth Spider, who looms over the hero as demons wage a battle in the darkness. In the foreground, two of Raiko’s followers, Watanabe no Tsuna and Sakata no Kintoki, play a game of go, yet neither seem to realize the battle blazing just beyond the lamplight. To the far left, Usui no Tadamitsu looks over his shoulder, while to the far right, Urabe no Suetake looks into the darkness, perhaps sensing the menacing realm just out of sight. As the crest depicted on Suetake’s kimono matched that of the Mizuno Tadakuni, author of the Tenpo reforms, this work functioned as a riddle-picture to its edokko audience. The rumors of its political subtext propelled the print to extreme popularity, and ultimately, a government ban.
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.
It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see. - Henry David