Dating to c.1825, this design marks one of Kuniyoshi’s earliest explorations of the triptych format. As the Nunobiki Waterfall flows blue and white in the left panel, Kuniyoshi juxtaposes natural beauty with the supernatural drama in this episode from the Tale of Heiji. In the center sheet, Akugenta Yoshihira (1140- 1160) floats upon a burst of fire. He has returned to avenge his death at the hands of Nanba Jiro years earlier. As promised at his death, Yoshihira has returned with the power of lightning to carry out his revenge. Kuniyoshi captures the intensity of Yoshihira’s fury through the bolts that frantically branch through the composition, blowing back the trees, and destroying the ground on impact. As the doomed Nanba Jiro is thrown into the air, a fireball speeds towards his upturned chest, the all-powerful Kiyomori and his retainers watch from the edges of the print.
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.
Can you imagine what I could do if I could do all I can - Sun Tzu