Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) was one of the great masters of Japanese woodblock printing and painting the ukiyo-e style. Some of his best known work are his triptychs of Samurai warriors in battle, sometimes against one another, sometimes against nature and sometimes against supernatural forces. His prints and paintings are full of stunning movement and color, epic scenes of violence and action. It’s easy to see the roots of manga culture in these prints; the graphic and surreal stories each picture tells and the glorification of the fight are central to Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s prints. You can see an ongoing collection of his work here, and check out a few of my favourite Samurai-themed triptychs below, pulled from his work done between 1818 and 1861.
Title: Ushiwaka Kurama shugyô zu
Description: Ushiwaka Maru practicing fencing among the pine trees of Kuramayama with the tengu under the supervision of their king, Sôjô-bô. The tengu here are completely birdlike
Title: Kamakura Shôgun Yori-ie-kyô Kotsubo-no-hama ni ryôsen to etc.
Description: Asahina Saburô Yoshihide struggling with two crocodiles on the seashore, watched by the Shôgun Yori-ie from a rock, with Mt. Fuji in the background
Title: Minamoto no Yorimitsu no Shitennô tsuchigumo taiji no zu
Description: Raikô’s retainers about to kill the Earth-Spider in the midst of its web
Title: Miyamoto Musashi Shirakura ka dokushu no etc. (宮本無三四白倉毒手…)
Description: Miyamoto Musashi bursting out of the bathhouse, to the consternation of Shirakura Gengoemon, his wife, and followers, who had intended to boil him alive there
Title: In Minamoto’s Residence the Earth Spider Appears as a Monster (Minamoto no Yorimitsu-kô no yakata ni tsuchigumo yôkai o nasu zu, 源頼光公館土蜘作妖怪圖)
Description: The Earth Spider (right) conjures up demons at the mansion of Minamoto no Raikô (Minamoto no Yorimitsu) (right), who lies sick in bed. Two of his bodyguards, Watanabe no Tsuna and Sakata no Kintoki, play go (centre), while Urabe no Suetake (right) and Usui no Tadamitsu (left) look towards the procession of spirits in the background
Title: Taira no Kiyomori Encountering the Ghost of Yoshihiro at Nunobiki Falls (Kiyomori nyûdô Nunobiki no taki yûran Akugenda Yoshihira no rei Namba Jirô wo utsu, 清盛入道布引滝遊覧)
Description: The ghost of Akugenda Yoshihira striking down his killer, Namba Jirô, at the Nunobiki waterfall before Kiyomori and his suite
Title: Yoritomo-kô mikari no zu (頼朝公御狩之)
Description: Tadatsune killing the monstrous wild boar, watched by Yoritomo and his followers
Title: Minamoto no Yori-ie-kô Kamakura Kotsubo no umi-yûran Asahina etc.
Description: Asahina Yoshihide’s fight with two crocodiles in the sea off Kamakura, watched by the Shôgun Yori-ie and his nobles in boats
Title: Picture of the Battle of Dan-no-ura (Dan-no-ura ô-kassen no zu, 壇ノ浦大合戦之圖)
Description: Yoshitsune’s leap at the Battle of Dan-no-ura with Noritsune leaping after him
Title: The Heroic Tales of Jiraiya (Jiraiya Gôketsu Monogatari (児雷也豪傑物語), Chapter 36
Description: Jiraiya is killing huge snake eyeing a giant toad behind him
Title: Miyamoto Musashi Sôshû Hakone no sanchû ni ôkami o ooku taiji shite shinmen o kijutsu o arawashite hajimete Sekiguchi ni mamiyu
Description: Miyamoto Musashi fighting off a pack of wolves in the Hakone mountains, watched by Sekiguchi Yatarô, seated smoking by a fire (right sheet)
Title: Kataki-uchi kidan Jiraiya monogatari: Sôshû Shichiri-ga-hama etc.
Description: Jiraiya and his followers, seated on the shore, watch Amame Isobei catching two miscreants, while Onikubi Kôemon engages the youth Masajirô and the maiden Midori in combat
Description: The Nue, shot down in a swirling black cloud by Gen Sammi Yorimasa (源三位頼政) is about to be dispatched by Ii no Hayata (猪早太廣直). The soldier on the right panel is identified as 渡邉丁七唱.
NOTE: The nue (鵺) was a beast with the head of a monkey, the claws of a tiger, the back of a badger and a snake for a tail. It spent its nights on the roof of the Emperor’s palace, causing him grave illness until it was slain by I no Hayata Hironao. Usually Minamoto Yorimasa is credited with shooting it down off the roof.
Description: Kuriu Saemon, Hata Rokurozaemon, Shinozuka Iga no Kami, and Watari Shinzaemon, retainers of Nitta Yoshisada, breaking up a haunted temple
Description: The ghosts of Tomomori and the other Taira warriors slain at Dan-no-ura attacking Yoshitsune and Benkei in their ship
Title: Yoshitsune kôshin: shitennô shusse kagami no uchi: Kamei Rokurô (義経功臣: 四天王出世鑑之内: 亀井六郎)
Description: Kamei Rokurô Shigekiyo making his debut as one of Yoshitsune’s retainers by fighting a black bear in the snow, watched by Yoshitsune and other retainers
Description: Raikô’s retainers advancing on Kidô Maru, who raises his buffalo-hide disguise
Title: Sanada no Yoichi Yoshihisa, Matano no Gorô Kagehisa (真田与市能久 俣野五郎景久, Sanada no Yoichi Yoshihisa and Matano no Gorô Kagehisa) Description: Struggle between Yoshihisa and Kagehisa at the Battle of Ishibashiyama in 1180
Title: Yoshitsune no jûku-shin
Description: Yoshitsune and his nineteen chief retainers in a ship
Description: The hero Raikô (Minamoto no Yorimitsu) in his sickness is tormented by the Earth Spider, one of whose legs he has cut off, but it is replaced by a human arm
Title: Shimotsuke no kuni Nasu no hara kimmô hakumen kyûbi no akko taiji no zu
Description: The Nine-tailed Fox slain on Nasu moor by Miura-no-suke Tsunetane and Kazusa no Suke Hirotsune