Songoku, the Monkey King, or Sun Wukong in Chinese, is the hero of the Chinese novel Journey to the West. He was a mischievous deity whose pranks wreaked havoc in Heaven. To atone for his misdeeds, he was assigned to serve as a bodyguard for a pious monk travelling between China and India carrying Buddhist scriptures. In this print, Songoku holds his iron spear, cavorting with another legendary animal, the Jade Rabbit. According to Chinese tradition, this immortal rabbit can be seen silhouetted against the full moon.
About the artist
Considered one of the last great masters of ukiyo-e, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka's woodblock prints are known for their eerie and imaginative nature. Yoshitoshi worked in a Japan undergoing rapid change, straddling the domains of the old, feudal system of the Edo period and the new, modern world of the Meiji period. His powerful imagination and originality imbued his prints with a sensitivity and honesty rarely seen in ukiyo-e of this time period. From ghost stories to folktales, violent clashes to the gentle glow of the moon, Yoshitoshi offers not only compositional and technical brilliance, but also unfettered passion.
Yoshitoshi was born in Edo on April 30th, 1839. As a young boy, he showed remarkable artistic talent and fierce interest in classical Japanese literature and history. He began to study under the renowned Kuniyoshi at the age of 11. Kuniyoshi, a leading woodblock print artist of the day, developed a close relationship with his pupil and gave him the name Yoshitoshi. Yoshitoshi Tsukioka published his first print to modest success in 1853, a triptych of a famous clash between the Taira and Minamoto clans. That same year, Commodore Perry's "black ships" docked in Edo Bay.
In the early 1860s, Yoshitoshi's prints focused on kabuki subjects and historical scenes, as well as foreigners. As the 19th century progressed, ukiyo-e felt the influence of the modern era, particularly through the introduction of synthetic dyes. Yoshitoshi learned to use these colors with subtlety and skill, holding his works to the highest printing standards throughout his career. Following Kuniyoshi's death in 1861, Yoshitoshi struggled as he set off on his own, taking Toshikage as his first student in 1863. As political instability grew in Japan during the late 1860s, he entered his "bloody period," an era marked by images of graphic violence and extravagant brutality.
As Meiji-period modernization pushed ahead, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka suffered a nervous breakdown in 1872, living in poverty and ceasing all artistic production. A year later, he resumed work; adopting the artist name Taiso, meaning "Great Resurrection," and fulfilling his creative potential. While Yoshitoshi continued to present battle scenes, he turned his attention to more recent incidents and slowly shifted from overt violence to the psychological struggles of individuals. In 1885, he began one of his most acclaimed series, One Hundred Views of the Moon (1885-1892). During the last decade of his life, Yoshitoshi designed numerous illustrated books and several other popular series including Thirty-two Aspects of Women (1888) and Thirty-six Ghosts and Strange Apparitions. (1889-1892). In the spring of 1892, he suffered his final mental breakdown and was committed to the Sugamo Asylum. On the 9th of June 1892, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 53.