Friday, 26 April 2013

Kuniyoshi to Yoshitoshi - Reviving the Warrior Class

Yoshitora, Attack on a Castle, 1864
Cultures turn to mythologies for reassurance - myths define us like daydreams, they show us how we might be. In England, (where we were recently reminded of all those knights in armour at Prime Minister Thatcher’s funeral) pageant remains the drag anchor to change: nostalgia, the potent enemy of social justice. In Japan of the nineteenth century, caught between the certainties of social acceleration and obligations to the past, similar entropy ensued. Like us here in England in the twenty-first century, many people looked to the past for symbols of moral certainty. Artists were quick to respond and there was a flowering of extraordinary artistic achievement by printmakers who were happy to provide images of an ordered society and symbols of digestible heroism.

The towering figure of musha-e (warrior prints) was Utagawa Kuniyoshi, one of the most successful of all Japanese woodblock artists.  Since the seventeenth century, the subject of woodblock prints had been primarily the women of the Yoshiwara, or actors of the kabuki stage. As the social fabric of Japan began to unravel in the early years of the nineteenth century, the burgeoning, urban middle class demanded more power, more presence and more fun, openly resenting the lazy decadence of the once (but no longer) powerful samurai class. Open defiance upset the social order, established for centuries by Hideyoshi in his reforms of the 1580’s - laws that protected the rights of the warrior class and effectively forbade social mobility. The samurai were no longer the fearless warlords and swordsmen that we imagine today. Hideyoshi created a domestic peace that was to last hundreds of years and the samurai swiftly became bureaucrats, writers, thinkers, dilettantes and even petty and noisome bandits. The relationship between nineteenth century samurai and their forbears is not dissimilar to the portly and feckless knights and peers of Great Britain today and the Black Prince of the middle ages.

Shuntei, Samurai with Giant Axe 1810's
It was against this backdrop that Kuniyoshi launched not only his groundbreaking series of full colour, single sheet warrior prints, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden in 1827 but a series of masterful triptychs depicting the heroic deeds of archaic warriors. These works found instant popularity among the urban middle class. Kuniyoshi timed his work perfectly; there had been attempts at musha-e before - Hokusai had begun the illustrations to the novelisation of the legend years previously, and Katsukawa Shuntei had produced several single sheet prints that accurately predict Kuniyoshi’s own great series by many years. Utagawa Kunisada had also made warrior prints which contained most of the elements of the great Suikoden series but to less applause. Artistically Kuniyoshi’s prints were more instantly impressive. The drawing is more fluid, the composition and design more confident and the vision bolder and more assured. The unaccountable success led swiftly to imitators among his colleagues and latterly his pupils to the extent that there is almost no original input into the genre in terms of style, design or competition until the astounding and original work of his last pupil, Yoshitoshi in the 1880’s. The question remains, especially to western audiences: who are these myriad warriors, what are their deeds and why were they so comprehensively revived?

The current show at the Toshidama Gallery, Kuniyoshi to Yoshitoshi - Reviving the Warrior Class, has twenty-five warrior prints, from an early Shuntei of the 1810’s to late Yoshitoshi in the 1880’s and a fine Toshihide of 1893. There is a distinct trend in subject matter, not just in the show but in the overall output of artists during the century. The earliest warrior prints are all romantic myth-making - Suikoden heroes and wild, magical beasts. As the century (and disaffection) takes hold  there is evidence of thinly disguised subversion, a deliberate (and dangerous) flouting of laws banning historic characters later than the sixteenth century. It is well known that Kuniyoshi was an admirer of the sixteenth century general Hideyoshi. The Tokugawa regime were particularly sensitive about this figure since whilst unifying Japan, he was deposed by the consolidation of power that led to the centuries long shogunate. Artists and writers risked severe penalties for making any reference to Hideyoshi, his crest, his campaigns or his generals. As early as his Suikoden series, Kuniyoshi was already disguising historic characters as Hideyoshi or his generals, a trend that continued throughout his career - even the gourd cartouche that Kuniyoshi adopted was homage to Hideyoshi’s thousand gourd standard. Kuniyoshi and his pupils revelled in direct and indirect prints of these historic events that can only be seen as anti-Tokugawa propaganda. In the current exhibition eight out of the twenty-four prints feature Hideyoshi or battles associated with him - a trend that gathered pace mid - century as the shogunate started to lose its grip on power.

These warrior prints can be seen as thinly disguised political dissent, something that would see trenchant revival in the latter part of the century after the Meiji Restoration and for similar reasons. Yoshitoshi,  his pupils (such as Toshihide) and Chikanobu were also sympathetic to the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 - an armed civil war, ostensibly fought on the principles of tradition against reform. Once again, prints of the era of the Grand Pacification as it came to be known, alluded to contemporary events and the musha-e again acted as a stand-in for less than covert criticism of the establishment.
Yoshitoshi, Description of the Punitive Campaign at Kagoshima, Satsuma Province 1877
Broadly speaking, whilst there seems to be a bewildering number of warriors, Daimyo, Shoguns, Emperors and Empresses, samurai and so on, the subject matter for print artists was limited to a few very specific sagas and collections of stories and incidents. Most of these were included into novels or histories which were published and widely circulated in Edo Japan and formed a compendium of history not dissimilar to any other culture. They fall into the following, general categories (which are by no means comprehensive):
Kuniyoshi, Empress Jingo-Kogo, 1843

Early History - The Suikoden (Archaic)
The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden was originally a Chinese novel of the 14th century, recounting the exploits of a romantic group of bandits (from the 11th century) who protected the poor and downtrodden. It was adapted to the Japanese from 1805 and was a huge hit with the public, leading to Kuniyoshi’s immensely successful series of woodblock prints in 1827. Other figures from the archaic are often illustrated and Kuniyoshi was notable in portraying the Empress Jingo Kogo, the first of many depictions of female warriors in his career. Jingo was very much a warrior queen, divinely inspired to chastise the west - invading Korea as a consequence.

 Minamoto Yorimitsu (Raiko) (944 - 1021)
Raiko was a member of the great Minamoto clan, who prospered under the weak rule of the Emperor Murakami. Japan was still a warring state of clans and rival families barely held together by a weakened monarchy. Raiko was commissioned to rid the country of supernatural demons and powerful bandit chiefs - he is famous for his encounter with the Earth Spider and his battles with the demon chief Shuten-doji. He and his four heroic retainers are the subject of many myths and legends which also include fantastical tales about the companions. Yasamusa’s brother, the evil Kido Maru features in the show in a magnificent diptych by Yoshitoshi. Kintoki began as the boy hero and superhuman Kintaro and is the subject of dozens of ukiyo-e himself, including his boyhood, where he is traditionally pictured in red.
Kunichika, Tsuchigumo the Earth Spider, 1866

Kuniyoshi, Fight at Gojo Bridge 1848
Yoshitsune (1159 - 1189) and Benkei
Two of the most popular figures in ukiyo-e, Yoshitsune was the son of Minamoto Yoshitomo and an exile, coming to prominence as a fighting hero with his faithful retainer Benkei. Their famous fight at Gojo Bridge is the subject of countless prints as are many of their Robin Hood and Little John style exploits.


The Minamoto war against the Taira Clan and the destruction of the Taira (1180’s)
The two biggest clans in Japan inevitably struggled to gain ultimate power and eliminate the other. Fighting and skirmishes resulted in the epic sea battle at Dan-no-ura in 1185 where the Taira were defeated by the Minamoto under the command of Yoshitsune. There are many depictions of this great sea battle, most of them featuring the leaping figure of Yoshitsune and the mass suicide of the Taira clan and the young Emperor. Yoshitsune himself died in the power struggle that ensued at the battle of Koromogawa in 1189.
Yoshikazu, the Battle of Dan-no-Ura of 1185, 1850's
The Story of the Soga Brothers (12th century)
In the twelfth century two rival lords fell out and Lord Kudo killed Kawazu-Saburo who left two infant boys, Juro and Goro. Their mother remarried and they took their stepfather’s name Soga. At five, they vowed revenge on their father’s death and by maturity they were committed to carry out the plan. In 1192 on the occasion of a hunting party, they ambushed Kudo, slaying him in his tent. They were set upon by Kudo’s retainers who killed Juro and captured Goro. Despite the justice of their case, Goro was executed on the orders of the Shogun. Hiroshige’s series contains thirty (possibly thirty-six) illustrations of the story and he weaves details from the kabuki plays and other tellings of the events into his prints.
Toshihide, the Assassination of Kudo Suketsune by Soga Goro, 1880's

Yoshitsuya, Nobunaga and the Angry Sosetsu
Oda Nobunaga (1534 - 1582) and Hideyoshi (1536 - 1598)
Nobunaga was a Daimyo and warrior who initiated the eventual unification of Japan. His conquests (and cruelty) were legendary and he appears in numerous prints towards the middle of the nineteenth century. Kuniyoshi’s obsession with him, led to many prints being made which defied strict censorship of a politically dangerous subject. Nobunaga was assassinated by one of his generals (Akechi Mitsuhide) and swiftly avenged by the great Hideyoshi who continued the drive towards unification, establishing the basic codes and laws of Japan and instilling a love of culture into its daily life. He died of bubonic plague in 1598 and his line was in turn defeated by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu whose family then ruled Japan until the 1860’s. Politically motivated prints inspired by these events came to dominate musha-e after 1864.


Toshihide, Hideyoshi Pursued by a Soldier of the Akechi, 1893

The Chushingura (1700 -1703)
The Chushingura is the literary and theatrical adaptation of the outstanding (and essentially true) story of honour, revenge and sacrifice which became the standard for Japanese moral certainty in the late Edo period. The dramas retell the straightforward story of the death of Enya Hangan, who in 1701 was forced to draw his sword in the Shogun’s palace by the goading  of the courtier Moronao. Hangan is obliged to commit suicide for the offence and his retainers become Ronin, leaderless samurai. They vow revenge and the play revolves around their plotting and preparation, culminating in the storming of Moronao’s house and his eventual assassination. The Chushingura is a body of work - plays and dramas for kabuki and the puppet theatre (bunraku), novels, manga and minor works - which, like the apocryphal gospels, embroider and enlarge upon the original story. The essential ingredients of an honourable man destroyed by an act of cowardice, the revenge by his loyal followers and their subsequent sacrifice chimed well with social unrest in the nineteenth century and many artists (notably Kuniyoshi in many series) made both musha-e and prints of theatrical adaptations, although confusingly, many prints use the approved pseudonyms of the characters rather than their historical names.
Kunisada, Act XI of The Chushingura - Night Attack, early 1930's
As can be seen, (and is so often the case with other cultures) the were many motivations at work behind the depiction of warriors and courageous deeds. Political subversion, inspiration, straightforward thrills and hagiography (official or otherwise) inform the depiction of these often wildly exaggerated heroes. The art of these exceptional Japanese printmakers reveals a wondrous journey of myth and legend and political analysis as well as a richly rewarding visual experience. In the west certainly - although in Japan these figures live on, however fantastically in manga and other media - many of these extraordinary and inspirational stories are tragically unknown. Appreciation of ukiyo-e is one way that we can still at this distance relive the world of the honourable samurai.