Utagawa Kuniyoshi's “Miyamoto Musashi Killing a Giant Yamazame (1830)” is a vibrant dynamic work piece depicting the epic hero in action, as he swiftly subdues the mystical scaly monster (Yamazame) in the mountains along the territory borders of Echizen/Mino/Hida. While Miyamoto Musashi is known for his double-bladed swordsmanship, curiously in this piece of work, his swords were visibly kept within their scabbards, and he instead used a spear to subdue the monster. Perhaps this implies that there was no need for him to unleash his full potential to subdue the Yamazame, and that a spear was just enough for a man of his power to control the monster.
Desperation was clearly depicted in the eye of the Yamazame, and we could almost imagine it trying to wriggle its way out of the situation with protracted claws, as it helplessly lies on its sides with loud roaring shrieks echoing from the palatine uvula of its opened mouth, which has also exposed its intimidating sharp fangs. The power dynamics are clear here.
Miyamoto Masashi totally has the upper hand, and we can sense his intense determination from his stern expression with arched eyebrows and frown. While the date when this event took place was unwritten in the woodblock print, we can infer from the clothing of Miyamoto Musashi that it was on a relatively cold day, perhaps in autumn or winter, as he was fully dressed in sufficient clothing to keep himself warm.
The brown animal fur on him gives an interesting smooth texture in contrast to the Yamazame’s sharp scales and fins. Thick socks were worn to protect his feet from the biting cold, which he will otherwise be exposed to, with the traditional straw sandal (Waraji). The deer patterns on his outfit and armored sleeves (Kote) also emphasized on his overall “wild” appearance, one worthy of the legendary figure who is part of the 800 heroes depicted in the Japanese Water Margin (Honcho Suikoden). Water Margin is originally a 14th century Chinese literature which depicts the epic stories of 108 heroic outlaws, and it has been adapted into Japanese with Takeba Ayatari’s Japanese Water Margin (Honcho Suikoden).
The vibrant woodblock prints, with the concept of bravery, persistence and chivalry, has garnered much popularity for Utagawa Kuniyoshi in the Edo period. So famous he was that it resulted in a large demand for tattoos inspired from his woodblock prints; this formed the basis of the colorful and detailed traditional Japanese tattoos, which cover a large extensive area of the skin, as we know today.
Other famous works of Utagawa Kuniyoshi include “Sakata Kaido-maru Wrestling the Giant Carp (1836)”. Unlike Miyamoto Musashi, who’s a real-life figure, Sakata Kaido-maru is a strong folklore hero in the form of a young boy. The vivid vitality of the folklore boy as he wrestled the giant carp makes the woodblock print a popular auspicious home decoration on May 5, Children’s Day (Tango no Sekku), where people wish for the longevity and healthy growth of the young males in their households.
This amazing article written by Yeong!