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Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861)

Minamoto no Yorimitsu (Raiko) Attacking Shutendoji

Medium: Woodblock Print
Date: c. 1848
Size (H x W): 14 x 28.5 (inches)
Publisher: Amatsu
Seals: Mera and Watanabe
Signature: Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi ga
Condition: Very good color and impression, some wear and soiling overall, vertical creasing.



In this powerful composition, Kuniyoshi illustrates a famous exploit of Raiko (aka Minamoto no Yorimitsu), a legendary warrior credited with slaying the demons, ogres and goblins that roamed medieval Japan. In this particular story, a giant demon known as the Shuten-doji was kidnapping the daughters of noble families, taking them to his lair on Mt. Oe and eating them. Raiko was sent to kill the Shuten-doji. Accompanied by his four loyal retainers, Raiko begins his ascent up the mountain, where he is met by three old deities. The trio give the heroes a special sake that is harmful to demons but beneficial to humans. On Mt. Oe, Raiko tricks Shuten-doji into drinking the sake, immobilizing him so that Raiko can remove the demon’s head. Here, the immense demon stretches across three sheets, rendering Raiko and his retainers small, although mighty. As the warriors ready their swords, Shuten-doji reverts from its daytime guise as a man to its true demonic appearance. 

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 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 forward, the public hungered for his portrayals of famous samurai and legendary heroes. Kuniyoshi Utagawa worked across 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 capturing 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 Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints were so popular in his time that he received requests for tattoo designs.