Artist: Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳)

Alternate names:
Chōōrō (go - 朝桜楼)
Ichiyūsai - from ca. 1818 (go - 一勇斎)
Igusa (original family name - 井草)
Magosaburō (common name - 孫三郎)
Ryūen (kyōka-go - 柳燕)
Saishōha - mid-1820s (go)
Sekkoku (go)
Senshin (go)
Taroemon (nickname - 太郎右衛門)
Yoshisaburō (childhood name - 芳三郎)
Ichimyōkai Hodoyoshi - posthumous Buddhist name (ingō)

Lifetime: 1797 - 1861

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Kuniyoshi was born on the 15th day of the 11th month of the 9th year or Kansei (1797). He died on the 5th day of the 3rd month of 1861.

This is information supplied by Amy Reigle Newland.


"Son of Yanagiya Kichiemon, a dyer of Nihombashi, Hongin-chō itchōme. Lived first at Mukōjima, later at Shin Izumi-chō, Genya-dana. Pupil of Utagawa Toyokun I, also said to have studied with Tsutsumi Tōrin III, Shibata Zeshin and Katsukawa Shuntei. First dated publication an illustrated book of 1814, Mibuji chūshinggura, and actor prints from 1815. First major success the series Suikoden Chinese warrior portraits for the publisher Kagaya Kichibei in 1827. During the Tempō era (1830-44) large numbers of warrior, bijin, comic prints and erotica, as well as landscapes in Western-influenced style. During the Kōka (1844-8)-Ka'ei (1848-54) eras many triptychs of warrior and historical subjects characterised by a unique sense of fantasy and strong creative imagination.

Aside from his many preparatory drawings for woodblock prints that survive, in which the forms take shape out of a swirl of free and fluid lines, Kuniyoshi's painting are generally more tame and dominated by scrolls of beauties."

Quoted from: Ukiyo-e Paintings in the British Museum by Timothy Clark, p. 205.


The information below is quoted directly from the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.

"Kuniyoshi was born in Edo on 1 January 1798, the son of a silk dyer; his childhood name was Yoshisaburō, while in later life he was called Ikusa Magosaburō. When still young he made friends with the print-artist Utagawa Kuninao (1793-1854) and in 1811 followed him into apprenticeship with the then celebrated Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825). The Utagawa school, of which Toyokuni was head, was famous most particularly for actor prints. Toyokuni was a fine printmaker; among his vast output there are prints worthy of comparison with those of the enigmatic Sharaku. Other than Kuniyoshi, his most famous pupil was Kunisada (1786-1864), who later became Toyokuni III. Kuniyoshi remained in Toyokuni’s studio until 1814, when he set up on his own, and was given the artist name Kuniyoshi, taking one syllable from his teacher’s name, as was the custom for favoured pupils.

His interest in warrior prints (musha-e) was an early one. None of his contemporaries concerned themselves with the genre, which apparently then had little public appeal. Kunisada, about thirteen years older, specialised in actor prints; Hiroshige, an almost exact contempo­rary, specialised in landscape. But Kuniyoshi was producing warrior tritpychs as early as 1818. It has to be said that these met with little success, and Kuniyoshi in these early years seems often to have been extremely poor and to have worked in many genres to scrape a living. It was not until 1827, with the first Suikoden series, that he made a serious impression on the public eye. These ōban prints were dramatic or melodramatic representations of examples of courage and strength, drawn from the Chinese novel, the Shuihu zhuan; see below. The trans­lation into Japanese, or, rather, adaptation of some of this almost un­readable book, by the novelist Bakin, in the 1820s, though not the first translation, was a tremendous success, and no doubt this stimulated this new genre.

From now on Kuniyoshi was famous, admitted to the first rank of printmakers, enjoying considerable success. Although it is the warrior prints for which he is best known, and which we discuss here, from this time on he ventured into many other fields of printmaking, some of his surimono being particularly pleasing, and including actor prints, de­pictions of courtesans and beautiful women and landscape.

After the legislation in 1842 enacting a sumptuary law, and the legal necessity of all prints to be submitted to a censor, called the Tempō reforms (Tempō no kaikaku), Kuniyoshi was severely reprimanded by the authorities for a supposed caricature of the Shōgun leyoshi in a triptych print entitled ‘Raiko threatened by the Earth-spider'. This seems in no way to have diminished his out-put and many of his most famous works are from this period. Some prints of this stage are avowedly comic, and many depict the cats which he seems to have loved so much. In 1855 he was badly shaken by the great Ansei earthquake, and for the rest of his life his output was patchy. He died in 1861, suffering from gout.

In this modest booklet we have selected prints from two of Kuniyoshi’s great series of ōban size warrior prints, the early one, the Tsūzoku Suikoden gōketsu hyaku-hachi-nin no hitori of 1827 and following years, the series with which he made his name, and which depicts Chinese heroes, and a later one, the Taiheki eiyū den of 1848-9 which depicts Japanese heroes.

The Suikoden is based upon the Chinese semi-historical novel the Shuihu zhuan, a version of which was translated into Japanese by the novelist Bakin (1767-1848). The title is usually rendered in English as literally as possible as 'Tales from the Water-Margin’, but it has also been famously translated by Pearl Buck in 1933 under the title ‘All men are brothers’.

The novel is based upon incidents at the end of the Song dy­nasty, in the thirteenth century, when a period of lawlessness preceded the rise of the Mongol or Yuan Dynasty. The various plots centre round one hundred and eight men, some more important than others, who, usually for righteous reasons, fell foul of what government there was, perhaps as victims of unjust officials, and took to the wilds as outlaws. The wilds in this case was an area in Shantung province called Liangshan po, in present-day Shandong, where a high mountain is surrounded by marshes, reed-beds and lakes, an area supposedly ideal for banditry.

The most celebrated thirty-six of these outlaws were regarded as heroes by the local population, whom they never robbed or op­pressed, as sort of Robin Hood figures. Certainly they were outlaws and bandits, and many of the tales are exceedingly bloody, but each tale centres on their feats of courage and strength, and their stand against the unjust rich and powerful.

Authorship of the book is claimed by one Shi Nai-an of Huaian, about whom little is known, and whose claims to authorship may be spurious, for it is more of an accretion of stories, and no particular edition can claim to be definitive. Its history has not been without inci­dent; in 1799 the Qing Dynasty, futilely, banned the book as subversive, ordering all copies to be destroyed, while in the nineteen thirties it was acclaimed as the first Communist literature of China.

The Chinese heroes depicted in this series are instantly distin­guishable from Japanese warriors by their clothes, weapons and ar­mour. Kuniyoshi clearly took a great interest in the depiction of ar­mour and of weapons; no doubt much of the clientele for warrior prints was pedantically knowledgeable on Japanese armour and weaponry, from first hand experience. Whether they knew, or even Kuniyoshi knew, much of the Chinese equivalents is open to doubt, even though such prints would always depict the accoutrements of the contempo­rary world, rather than attempting historical reconstructions. Presum­ably the series was never completed, for only seventy-four prints are known, a few of which were added later, e.g. in 1836 and about 1845, as if there was some idea of completion, which was never in fact carried out. The publisher was Kaga-ya Kichiemon; it was presumably he who commissioned the series in the first place.

Thus thirty-three of the 108 heroes were not depicted in prints. Curiously, there exist ten detailed paintings which conform exactly to the series, with the same cartouches, but with the gourd-shaped space for the signature empty. None of the heroes depicted in these paintings appears in a print. Nine of these paintings are in the National Museum for Ethnology in Leiden, the tenth in the Ashmolean Museum, illus­trated here as number 11. Quite what these paintings are for is uncer­tain; they are too detailed for the drawings that would be sent to the blockmaker (shita-e). Might they be demonstration models, as it were, examples to show to a publisher? We do not know, and no parallels seem to be recorded for other series by Kuniyoshi or for other Ukiyo-e artists.

Another of Kuniyoshi’s great warrior series, of 1848-49, was based on the Taiheki, supposedly an account of the fourteenth century wars between the forces of the Emperor and the Hōjō family re­gents of Japan. The title means literally ‘Chronicles of the great Peace’ which might be purely ironic or, as McCullough (1959) would have it ‘Chronicles of the Great Pacification’; in other words, a chronicle written by the eventual winners of how they achieved victory and peace. It has been argued on the one hand that it is com­plete fiction, and on the other that there is enough historical truth in some of it to render it quite useful.

Briefly, the Emperor Go-Daigo, living a powerless life in Kyoto, rallied some loyal families, notably the Nitta and the Kusunoki, to rise against the rule of the Hōjō shōguns in 1331; by 1333, the Emperor, who had been banished from the throne was back upon it wielding real power as the first Emperor for many centuries who had actually ruled. Unfortunately his rule was not popular and did not last long (two years), and after further struggles power was taken over by the head of the Ashikaga family, Takeuchi, a former ally of the Emperor, and the Kusunoki and Nitta families defeated and killed.

There are several depictions by Kuniyoshi of these wars and notably of the last stand of the Kusunoki family at the battle of Shijōnawate in 1348, slaughtered by a great hail of arrows. But in this series, Taiheki eiyū den of 1848-9, Kuniyoshi chose to ignore the original, and based it upon the events of the sixteenth century wars instead, the wars that overthrew the Ashikaga shoguns in favour of the successive warlords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa leyasu, leading to the Tokugawa shogunate, the Edo period (1600-1868). These three men were instrumental in the unification of Japan in the late six­teenth century, after years of civil wars. Their characters have often been summarised in a surely fictitious anecdote; when confronted with a bird famous for its song, but which did not sing, Nobunaga is sup­posed to have said ‘I will make it sing’, Hideyoshi to have said ‘I will persuade it to sing’ and leyasu to have said ‘I will wait until it does sing’.

It was under Nobunaga that firearms were first introduced into Japan (by the Portuguese); he quickly realised the potential effective­ness of a regiment of muskets as opposed to the hero-based Homeric style of combat hitherto favoured. Although in the mid-sixteenth century wars in the north of Japan, between the Uesugi and Takeda families, use had been made of the musket, this was not in the organised way utilised by Nobunaga. This brought with it such side-effects as the necessity for stone-built castles, but never quite abolished the position of the archer, the cavalry and the spearman. Many of Kuniyoshi’s prints in the Taiheki series depict guns or gunfire. Particularly striking is an image of the death of ‘Sasai Masayasu’ by gunfire, where the path of the bullets show as great streaks across the picture (see No. 15) [EA1971.59].

Each of the prints in this series bears a text, quasi-historical, by Ryukatei Tanekazu. Some of the prints, but not all, are numbered as if there was to be a sequence, but the order of this is not apparent, especially as the series as originally projected may never have been finished, for only fifty one prints of this series are known.

Japanese history and mythology is somewhat obsessed with heroic failure; as Yoshida no Kaneyoshi (1283-1350?) wrote, 'Any man may be soldier enough to crush the foe when fortune favours him, but war is a profession where he cannot make his name until, his forces exhausted, his weapons at an end, he seeks death at the hand of the foe rather than surrender. So long as he is living, he cannot boast of warlike fame’. Indeed the story of perhaps the most famous of all Japanese historical/mythological folk heroes, Minamoto Yoshitsune, involves his betrayal by his brother Yoritomo, and eventual death by suicide after a losing battle. Similarly the story of the forty-seven ronin ends with their suicide, and both the Soga brothers died accomplishing their revenge. The Taiheki is full of incidents where the losing forces become the he­roes by their acceptance of death to avoid capture. Kuniyoshi tends to depict the last moments of such battles, and many of his subjects are shown in extremis, struggling against great odds, or mown down by a hail of arrows or great flashes of gunfire.

Kuniyoshi has, recently, sometimes been called the last of the great Ukiyo-e artists, and to some extent this is true; most of the later out­put, particularly of the Utagawa school, lacks the grand scale of Kuniyoshi’s work, and is bedevilled by poor colouring, much of it in harsh imported pigments. Many critics except only Yoshitoshi (1839-1982) from this judgement.

Equally, only shortly before, Kuniyoshi and Kunisada had been classified as two of the ‘decadents’, the printmakers who destroyed the tradition. This is manifestly untrue, but as recently as 1960, so percep­tive a critic as Jack Hillier, just avoiding damning Kuniyoshi and Kunisada with faint praise, wrote ‘That a vast number of their prints, especially Kunisada’s, are repellant to us, mainly because of spectacular or sensa­tional subjects with colour to match, is ... undeniable, but there is a residue of splendid things in each artist's oeuvre that makes it invidious to seem to plead for them’. We do not plead for Kuniyoshi; there is no need."


Among the very first Japanese prints to enter the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were 19 examples by Eizan. These were in an album of 24 prints which include 2 by Kunisada and 3 by Kunimaru. They were a gift of Mary L. Cassilly in 1894.

A second album of 88 prints was also donated at the time. It was prints from 'The Hundred Poets Compared' series including works by Hiroshige, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi.

Source: 'Early Collectors of Japanese Prints and the Metropolitan Museum of Art' by Julia Meech-Pekarik, Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 17, 1982, pp. 93-118.

Related Entity

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡芳年) (was student)