Vegder's Blog

May 26, 2014

Kuniyoshi’s Explicable and Inexplicable Motifs: weapons, fanciful creatures and other things – animal, mineral and vegetable – Part One

Filed under: Art,Japanese art,Japanese woodblock prints — vegder @ 8:48 pm
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I have looked closely at a lot of Kuniyoshi prints over the years. They never cease to amaze me with their wealth of details. Some of these are right out there in the open – in your face, so to speak – while others are hidden away in the mass of tumble, jumble images that might never be noticed by the average viewer. That is why I have decided to try to parse some of the elements of some of his prints. I am not always sure that everything which shows up in the finished product was conceived by the master himself. Perhaps it was a collaborative work between Kuniyoshi, his publisher and the master carvers. A close look at his extant drawings compared to the finished print would show you what I mean. But for now I’ll leave that issue alone and assume that most of the motifs I am going to point out and discuss, if possibly, are based on Kuniyoshi’s own concepts.

One other point: I could have spent a lifetime working on this project, but there isn’t enough time anymore – at least not for me. So, I will give it a start and hope that others will pick up where I leave off. You will notice I am calling this ‘Part One.’ That is because I expect that there will be many more posts to follow based on this theme. As I see it now, this process – considering the ponderous pace at which I work – should take me no more than another two hundred and fifty three years – give or take a millenium – and maybe by then I will have made a dent in the fabric of space/time and even in the over all expanse of Kuniyoshi’s extensive oeuvre.

A warning: I do not plan to discuss the subject of any particular print. If you want to know what it’s story-line is you can research it yourself. Me? I am going to stick strictly to the parts – the smaller the better. However, I assure you that I will stop short of the molecular level for the sake of everyone’s sanity – especially my own.

And a disclaimer: I know nothing about Japanese weapons. Nothing.

Let’s start with a weapon which show up in a one of his Suikoden prints. Fortunately there is a copy in the collection of the British Museum. Below it shows Kyūmonryū Shishin (九紋龍史進) in action. It dates from ca. 1827-30. What draws me, among other things, is the kumade (熊手) or rake like weapon just barely visible in the lower right. Loosely translated it combines the Japanese word for ‘bear’ 熊 and the word for ‘hand’ 手 or in this case ‘paw’ or even ‘claw.’ This instrument is described as having three or four hooks, attached to fairly long pole, meant for use on land or on water to snare one’s opponents. It could be used to pull a rider down from his mount. A grappling hook.

BM_Kuniyoshi_Kyumonryu_Shishin_7b   © Trustees of the British Museum     BM_Kuniyoshi_Kyumonryu_Shishin_7_kumade_detail3


Kuniyoshi included images of kumade in a number of drawings and prints. There is a somewhat battered drawing in Boston showing Benkei (弁慶), a man who was said to have collected pretty much every type of fighting weapon available. Actually, he was known as Nanatsu dōgu Benkei, ‘Benkei of the Seven Tools’ – 七ツ道具弁慶. Here is the list: 1) the masakari or broad ax – 鉞; 2)  the kumade; 3) the nagigama or sickle weapon – possibly 薙鎌; 4) hizuchi or wooden mallet; 5) the nokogiri or saw; 6) the tetsubō or iron staff; 7) the sasumata or half-moon spear; and 8) his sword.

The image below, also by Kuniyoshi, postdates the first picture by about twenty years, but that is neither here nor there. It is two of three key-block panels of a triptych showing the battle between Benkei and Ushiwakamaru on the Gōjō Bridge. The yamabushi and the flying tengu are intent on helping the young man, the future Japanese hero Yoshitsune, win this struggle. The exact title is Disgusted by the Arrogant Misdeeds of the Taira, Sōjōbō of Mount Kurama and the Rest of the Eight Tengu Become Close Companions of Ushiwakamaru and Recruit Heroes as His Followers in Order to Restore the Minamoto Clan. Benkei is the hero referred to here. After losing he became the most devoted follower of Ushiwakamaru. (Both images below are from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.)

MFA_Kuniyoshi_Benkei_tengu_7b     MFA_Kuniyoshi_Benkei_tengu_7_kumade_detail2


In 1848 Kuniyoshi created one of his strangest triptychs and that is saying a lot for an artist who could easily be called the “Master of Strange.” [My term  – applied with respect and affectionately.] In it, the artist is surrounded by a series of ōtsu-e folk paintings come to life. The figure of Benkei – with his prominent kumade carried on his back along with a lot of other lethal weapons – is said to be a caricatured portrait of  Ichikawa Danjūrō VIII. I have isolated that figure from the overall jumble of characters. See below. And below that is the full, unadulterated version of the entire triptych from the Lyon Collection. Click on that image to see more about this composition.

Kuniyoshi_otsue_Benkei_kumade_Lyon_Collection_7_detail4      Kuniyoshi_otsue_triptych_Lyon_Collection_7   Lyon Collection

For those of you who are wondering about the bell Benkei is carrying on his back – Benkei, who was known for his Herculean strength, once was said to have stolen the massive bell from Miidera temple and hauled or dragged it back to Kyoto. Such strength is not surprising considering that he was said to be three years old when he was born.

The bell is shown clearly in the image posted above. When it was struck it was said to have given off a  plaintive sound that cried out to be taken back home. However, that is not why I am talking about it here. I simply wanted to fill you in before I showed you the next two images. The first one appears to be a silhouetted picture of a man gesturing with his hand. That one is from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The one next to it, which is from another collection, shows how witty and creative Kuniyoshi could be because it shows Benkei carrying the bell on his back while approaching a precipice. Both prints are the same. That is, they both have the exact same outline. How did Kuniyoshi ever dream this up? Great minds…

MFA_Kuniyoshi_Benkei_Miidera_bell_silhouette_7b   Benkei_bell_3c


The Rake’s Progress – My fascination with art history runs deep. Whenever I see an image or a motif I want to know what its precedents have been. Who was the first to do this? What artists influenced the artist I am currently looking at. There is always a background story. Of course, I am never really able to answer these questions. Oh, I can make a relatively good stab at it at times, but I never really get to the ‘sweet spot.’ I only approximate it. That said, let’s look at some of the images of kumade – the kumade as  a weapon – that came before Kuniyoshi’s heyday. For now we will start with an image of Benkei and two children in a hand-colored print by Nishimura Shigenaga (西村重長), dating from ca. 1716-36.

LOC_Shigenaga_Benkei_children_kumade_7   Library of Congress

Now this Shigenaga print raises a number of questions. We know that the figure of the man with a red face is supposed to be Benkei. And, we know that Benkei often carried a kumade, or rake, as a weapon, but here the rake looks just like a rake. Perhaps the power of association is enough to help us transform this ordinary tool into a weapon – if only in our minds.

There are a couple of other important things about to note about this print. Benkei is portrayed as a yamabushi or mountain ascetic. There is a series of black and white, linear woodblock print illustrations by Hishikawa Moronobu from 1695. They were published in book form as the Sugata-e hyakunin isshu (姿絵百人一首) or ‘Portraits for One Hundred Poems about One Hundred Poets.’ Number 66 deals with DaiSōjō Gyōson (1055-1135) and shows “…a rough mountain ascetic confronted, seemingly unexpectedly, by a young samurai…” Joshua Mostow notes the similarities of the older man with certain representations of Benkei. He also points out that in a number of nō plays there is “…the theme of youngs boys being abducted by goblins (tengu) or yamabushi…” This is particularly interesting because Benkei, some believe, received his training as an ascetic from the tengu. And while we are on the subject, look back up the page to the images of the struggle on Gōjō Bridge.


There is also a print of an actor as Benkei dating from 1813. This one is by Toyokuni I, Kuniyoshi’s teacher. And there it is, the bear claw.


Another print by Toyokuni I – the left panel of a triptych – from around the same time, but not one meant for the stage, shows Benkei overwhelming one of his opponents. Again you can see clearly the kumade on his back as part of his personal arsenal. Click on the image to go to the information about this print in the Lyon Collection which owns two of the three panels.

Toyokuni_I_Benkei_kumade_Lyon_Collection_7b   Lyon Collection

[I want to thank my friend Lee from the Isle of Wight for giving me the idea to entitle this section ‘The Rake’s Progress.’ I would like to think I would have thought of it in time, but who knows. Thanks Lee!]

Just for emphasis, since I am already on the topic – I know that you know what a bear’s claw looks like. However, when I ran across one at Flickr, posted by Moss, I thought it was too good not to pass along to you here as a reminder. No wonder the Japanese called their special rake-like weapon a kumade.


At last, after much searching, I finally found an image by Kuniyoshi of a bear with it’s claws. Or, did I? – The print below shows Kumagae overwhelming a real-live bear with his valor, strength, will and overall superior testosterone levels. Do male bears have testosterone? Never thought about that one. Bet they do. Anyway, here a bear still bearing his claws is clearly being thwarted. Or, is he? Or, she? I don’t know the gender. In which case, forget that I ever mentioned testosterone, please. Another anyway, there is something fishy about this bear. I have my suspicions. Knowing what I know about theatrical Japanese prints I think that bear is a man in a bear suit being thwarted. Not the real thing. I mean… look at it. Those eyes. That splayed position on the ground like it was something straight out of the WWF. What do you think? I think I should keep looking, eh? Nice try Kuniyoshi.


Another great image that has nothing to do with Kuniyoshi – While looking for an appropriate bear claw photo at Flickr I ran across an awesome tattoo based on Haida imagery. It was so good and so interesting that I decided to include in this post too. It was put there by Gil Garcia and, as best I can tell, it represents what he has done to his upper torso. Even though I am reluctant to give a boost to any commercial enterprises I will repeat what Mr. Garcia said about this tattoo: he got this work done at Blindside Tattoo in Austin and it was put there by El Puppet. What a name!

One other note: I have decide to include it here because of the symbolism it holds for the Haida people and because I have written elsewhere about tattoos in Japanese art. I could have, and had planned to, researched Japan’s Ainu interest in bears, but this is just as good for me – for now.


The only bear claw I ever got up-close-and-personal with!

Sinful_delight_John_Liu_Flickr_7   The image to the left is only a representation for the many bear claw pastries I ate years ago before I gave up baked goods for exercise. It was posted at Flickr by John Liu and is entitled Sinful delight.

There are a couple of other representations in of rakes in Japanese art which really matter – One is in the story of Jō (尉) and Uba (媼) – literally ‘old man’ and ‘old woman.’ As a young couple they fell deeply in love. Their relationship lasted forever and is still going. Their spirits have possessed two ancient, intertwined pine trees. On dark, misty nights they sometimes are said to reappear. She sweeps away with a broom those things which trouble us and he rakes up the pine needles which represent those things which make us happy. The image shown below is from the collections at Harvard and is by Torii Kiyomasu I, dating from the first decade of the 18th century. Their figures are formed by written Japanese characters. I don’t know for sure, but I would suspect that they may ‘spell out’ their names. If anyone out there knows better please get in touch. My ignorance knows no bounds. Also, notice those wonderfully stylized pine needles lying on the ground at their feet. Wonderful!

To the right of the print from Harvard is a another calligraphic print, but this one is by Kuniyoshi and not from their collection. It shows a take-off on a scene from Act IX (Kudanme) of the Chūshingura wear Kakugawa Honzō has disguised himself as an itinerant priest playing a flute.

Harvard_Torii_Kiyomasu_I_Jo_Uba_7b   Harvard Art Museums  Kuniyoshi_Chushingura_calligraphic_print_1d

I looked long and hard for a single example of images of Jō and Uba in the work of Kuniyoshi and found only one. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t others out there. This mythical couple play a small part of a rather busy triptych. There is a copy of the whole thing in the British Museum, but I am only posting an photo of the left-hand panel. You will be able to spot them even though Uba is carrying the rake and Jō appears to be holding a scythe.

BM_Jo_Uba_Kuniyoshi_7c   © Trustees of the British Museum   BM_Jo_Uba_Kuniyoshi_7_detail

Oh, what the hell, I decided to give you a detail of that print showing them a little more clearly. So there.

I know you have been asking yourself: Is this putz ever going to mention the Tori no ichi (酉の市) and the other use of the rake in Japanese culture? Well, now I am. Now for you who don’t know what the Tori no ichi is, let me tell you. It is the Cock Fair*. It is a Shinto festival held on the cock days of November at the Ōtori shrines throughout Japan. Here I will focus on the one in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. The god or kami of these shrines is thought to be the god of good luck. That is why shop stalls are set up at the entry to these locals where rake-shaped talisman are sold to help rake in good luck, prosperity and happiness in the coming year.

Years ago, I read that Mock Joya – a name I have never trusted – said that the people who buy a kumade decorated with propitious symbols should start small. The next year they should buy a larger more elaborate one. And each year after that they should keep upping their game. Steven Heine in his book Sacred High City, Sacred Low City: A Tale of Religious Sites in Two Tokyo Neighborhoods says: “Today, nearly everyone attending is looking to buy different sizes and styles of kumade (or bear’s claw), a bamboo rake, which can cost anywhere from $10 to $1,000 (the bigger the investment the bigger the payoff) and is said to help the purchaser rake in the money if placed on an office wall.”

[A little explanation: I have chosen to refer to the Tori no ichi as ‘the Cock Fair.’ I could have just as easily called ‘the Bird Fair,’ or ‘Day of the Rooster’ as one author did. In fact, there are probably a slew of other possibilities, but for reasons of my own I have decided to call it ‘the Cock Fair.’ You can call it what you want.]

Many of you will recognize the next image posted. It is from the last series ever done by Hiroshige. It is a charmer. But not everyone will know the title of this piece: ‘Revelers Returned from the Tori no Machi at Asakusa.’  You don’t see the revelers. Most people only focus on the beautiful cat sitting on the ledge looking out the window – as cats so often do. Yet we know that the women who live in this space have been to the fair, the Cock Fair, where one of them purchased a set of small hairpins done up in the style of the ubiquitous decorated kumade which are sold there for raking in good luck in the coming year. Another clue to the secrets of this print is the birds, ‘the sparrows of happiness,’ fukura-suzume, decorating the lower register of the wall below where the cat is perched and of the birds flying in formation in the distant sky. The peaceful nature of this print contrasts violently with the hubbub of the fair itself. This design is a masterstroke.

MMA_Hiroshige_Revelers_Returned_from_Tori_no_Machi_Festival_at_Asakusa_7b     MMA_Hiroshige_Revelers_Returned_from_Tori_no_Machi_Festival_at_Asakusa_7_kumade_hairpins

Another detail from this print shows a procession of people either going to or coming from the fair. A close look and you will notice that many of them are carry kumade.


Today the decorated rakes at the Tori no ichi are hardly recognizable for what they are. This can be seen in the photo posted below. It was placed at Flickr by Brian Parker – and personally I think it is great. Look closely and you will see that underneath all of that excess are the hooked prongs of the kumade. Another thing to notice is the prominent image of the mask of Otafuku – the plump faced cheerful woman. Now, look back up at the Hiroshige detail shown above and you will see that the hairpin on the right, the ones still held in place by the paper they were positioned on, is also an Otafuku.


In the National Diet Library is a triptych by Toyokuni III based on a scene in a kabuki play. The right-hand panel shows a character as a kumade peddler. It dates from 1860, only two years after the Hiroshige was published.

NDL_Toyokuni_III_Tori_no_ichi_triptych_panel_7b   National Diet Library

The chubby-cheeked figure of Otafuku is thought to be a reincarnation of Shinto god Uzume Mikoto. A little background: Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, is so offended by the high-jinks of her terribly immature brother. So she locked herself up in a cave. The entire cosmos is thrown into darkness – deep dark intense darkness. The other gods find this intolerable and urge Amaterasu to come back out, but she won’t be budged. Then Uzume Mikoto, the future Otafuku, begins to dance a rather outrageous, libidinous dance. At one point she squats down and exposes her private parts, much to the great joy of the assembled gods. Their laughter is so uproarious that Amaterasu’s curiosity is piqued and she ventures out to see what all of the commotion is about. When the sun goddess does this the others block her way back into the cave the the universe is set right again.

I suppose that is why Otafuku is so important. There is a print at Harvard that is signed but unascribed showing the scene of the gods gathered in an effort to get Amaterasu to leave her cave. You will see the Uzume Mikoto/Otafuku figure near the center. By her stands a cock. Not a subtle reference.

Harvard_Amaterasu_cave_print_7b   Harvard Art Museums

At the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin there is another representation of this episode. This one is by Toyokuni III and dates from ca. 1844. Here the Sun goddess is visible to us. The future Okufuku figure is  the large, standing female at the left of the center panel. A cock is prominently displayed here, too, toward the bottom of the right-hand panel.

Chazen_Toyokuni_III_Kagura_Cave_7b   Chazen Museum of Art




On another point: In late August and early September, 2014 I upgraded my post on hydrangeas thanks to the generous contributions made by Scott of Kyoto. Click on the Gakutei print shown below to see what’s new and why an image of a fellow in armor is placed among images of hydrangeas.



For those of you who would like to see more information about Japanese art and culture please visit my other web site at

For a ton more information – scattered and diverse – visit my index/glossary pages. You will find links to numerous individual pages about half way down the home page. Just click on any of them and then brace yourself. Enjoy the ride! Thanks!

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