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Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Yoshitsune's ship attacked by the Taira ghosts

Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Colour print from woodblocks. Ôban. Publisher: Jôshûya Jûzû. 01/1853

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From the series of sixteen prints A Biography of Yoshitsune, darling of the Minamoto (Hodo Yoshitsune koi no Minamoto ichidaikagami), published in the early 1850s. The title of the series is in a red cartouche framed in bamboo and decorated with the bamboo leaves and bellflowers of the Minamoto family crest (mon); the crest appears on Yoshitsune's tunic. The decorated scroll (top left) contains a brief description of the episode depicted.

The story of the feud between the Minamoto (Genji) and Taira (Heike) clans was told in the Heike Monogatari (Tale of the Heike) and the Gikeiki (Story of Yoshitsune), and retold many times in plays and prints, most of them featuring the heroic deeds of Yoshitsune no Minamoto and his loyal warrior-priest Benkei. The final and decisive sea-battle took place in 1185 at Dannoura in the straits between the island of Kyûshû and the mainland. The Taira fleet was destroyed by Yoshitsune's greater forces and the leading members of the Taira family were slain or drowned. The legendary episode illustrated in this print occurred soon afterwards when Yoshitsune, hounded by the forces of his jealous half-brother Yoritomo, set sail for the island of Shikoku. Off the coast of Settsu a terrible storm blew up, spirit-fires appeared in the waves and the ghosts of the Taira warriors slain or drowned at Dannoura rose from the depths of the sea to sink the ship. The warrior-priest Benkei grabbed his rosary and recited exorcisms until the ghosts sank back into the waves and the storm subsided. Kuniyoshi depicted this episode several times, mainly in triptychs, with Benkei clearly holding his rosary. In another version of the story Benkei fired arrows at the ghosts, and in this print, he grasps his sword to stem the onslaught.

As well as the multitude of ghosts, there are a number of monstrous crabs with faces on their backs about to board the ship. These are part of the legend that haunted the site of the battle. Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) described 'strange crabs found there, called Heike, which have human faces on their backs, and are said to be the spirits of the Heike warriors. But there are many strange things to be seen and heard along that coast. On dark nights thousands of ghostly fires hover about the beach, or flit above the waves - pale lights which the fishermen call oni-bi , or demon-fires; and whenever the winds are up, a sound of great shouting comes from the sea, like a clamour of battle.' (Kwaidan, 1927).

Click here for Yoshitoshi's print of this episode

Given by T. H. Riches, 1913