Monday, 21 March 2011

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865)  Fight on Benkei's Bridge, 1860

There’s a lot of history and myth making to catch up with in this very fine print. First of all, what is it... what’s going on... how do we find out more? Well, what we can see is two strong men against a dark background fighting on a bridge. The man on the right, seems to have an unfair advantage - he’s much bigger than his opponent and he’s wielding a sword whereas the figure on the left only has a length of bamboo. We might wonder who will win, or indeed who is the aggressor.

Only a very little knowledge is needed to find out about more this print. For a start it might be an idea to identify the artist. Kunisada has a very distinctive signature and is seen here in the Toshidama cartouche in red and yellow. The scene of two men fighting on a bridge is a common subject in ukiyo-e and usually depicts the fight between the heroes Benkei and Minamoto no Yoshitsune, one of the great folk tales of Japanese history.

First, a little background. Saitō Musashibō Benkei was a warrior monk, who lived in 12th century Japan. It is said that he was brought up by monks, was famously strong and tall and that he was a great fighter. When he was seventeen, he became a yamabushi, (a mountain monk) and positioned himself at Gojo Bridge, relieving travellers of their swords before allowing them to cross. His one thousandth victim was Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune was also brought up by monks and was a skillful swordsman; his older brother Yoritomo became head of the Minamoto clan and together they went on to defeat the Taira clan in what is known as the Genpei war of 1180. Where myth and history part company is the tale of Yoshitsune being trained in martial arts by the tengu, mythical half-bird, half-man creatures skilled in martial arts.

The print depicts Benkei with sword and Yoshitsune on the left about to engage in the famous duel. Yoshitsune won the duel and Benkei failed to win his one thousandth consecutive sword. Instead he became Yoshitsune’s loyal retainer, dying with him at the battle of the Koromo river. Yoshitsune is usually depicted much slighter than he is here and Benkei more fearsome; as it is Kunisada has shown Yoshitsune as heavily tattooed, which is again a break from tradition.

Benkei’s final stand - defending the bridge to the castle where his master and family were committing suicide - is also legendary. This last act of courage is widely known as the ‘standing death of Benkei’. It is said that he was so pierced with arrows that his attackers feared to approach him. When they eventually summoned the courage they discovered that Benkei had died standing up. There is a nice resonance with this in modern western culture in the image of the death of Boromir from the 2001 movie of The Fellowship of the Ring. Clearly the persistent image of loyalty and sacrifice has a powerful meaning across all cultures.

This print is available at Toshidama Gallery for £370 less 10% for newsletter subscribers.