Kuniyoshi uses the arch of Gojo Bridge to draw the viewer into the famous first meeting of Benkei and Ushiwakamaru. The story tells that Benkei, a wandering priest feared for his strength and swordsmanship, waited in the shadow of Gojo Bridge to challenge unsuspecting warriors. One night, Ushiwakamaru (Yoshitsune) attempted to cross the bridge. Though Benkei expected a quick victory, Ushiwakamaru easily bested the towering priest. Following this moonlit duel, Benkei became one of Ushiwakamaru’s most loyal followers. Though this legendary battle is the subject of the print, Kuniyoshi grounds the tale with a sense of place. The heroes occupy only a small amount of the composition, but Kuniyoshi pays special attention to the bridge. Through attention to scale, the arc, and the landscape under the bridge, Kuniyoshi places the viewer on the bank of the river, gazing up at the historical event 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. Kuniyoshi's prints were so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.
“We have art in order not to die of the truth.” - Friedrich