Understanding and Appreciating Kuniyoshi’s Warrior Prints

March 17, 2019 4 min read

Understanding and Appreciating Kuniyoshi’s Warrior Prints-Rising Sun Prints Blog

As a print maker, Kuniyoshi was renowned for his unique styling of the characters from folktales, warriors, actors, and other important historical figures. He depicted them in a fantastical, fierce, and even frightening way—an ode to the traditional figures of Japanese folklore.

In addition, he mixed warrior print portraits with the styles of Kabuki theatre by dressing them in elaborate and colorful uniforms. Kuniyoshi made sure that his prints were imbued with the drama of Kabuki theatre, and that the larger than life scenes he depicted gave off tangible action.

One of his most famous print series was The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers, which tells the story of 47 masterless retainers, or “ronin”, who avenged the death of their lord in a night raid.

The story of the retainers is a prime example of the Japanese concept of loyalty—bushido. In addition, Kuniyoshi depicts the courage and fidelity of samurai ideals successfully.

This series showcases the characters of all 47 ronin involved in the raid and their roles in the story. Being a master printmaker, Kuniyoshi was able to infuse his drawings with energy and give them perceived movement, allowing the viewer to visualize the battle that occurred that fateful night. Indeed, most of the prints show the retainers in fighting stances.

[Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Nakamura Kansuke Tadatoki, #16 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series]

The prints in the series follow a similar setup, a single full-length character with a plain background, which allows all the focus to be on the figure itself. Most of the warrior prints have ten components:

  1. Text
  2. Series title
  3. Print title
  4. Author of the text
  5. Artist signature
  6. Artist seal
  7. Censor seals
  8. Publisher seal
  9. Print number
  10. The illustration

[Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Yoshida Sadaemon Kanesada, #6 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series]

The writing found in the prints, in the upper area, is small excerpts describing the life of the retainers—some even include the retainers last poems.

[Close-up of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Aihara Esuke Munefusa, #26 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series with poem translation]

Often the prints include the name of the text author to the left side of it the text.

The red cartouche on the right side of the print has the series title.
The print title, in this case, the name of the retainer illustrated, is underneath the series titles.
Also, not all prints will have the publisher’s seal and if included, they are easily identifiable inside a rectangular box typically next to the artist’s signature.

It is important to note that most prints include two censor seals, at that time needed to approve the image for publishing. The Tenpō reforms of the late 1840s included restrictions on prints, limiting subjects and colors.

However, Kuniyoshi was able to avoid the censors with the story of the 47 ronin, which depicted virtue and fidelity. In addition, the public liked the story’s message criticizing the administration’s censorship.

As previously mentioned, each print highlights the personality of the forty-seven loyal retainers. Kuniyoshi made sure that each figure was unique, that each figure was recognizable by their features and objects around them.

For example, in the fifth print of the series we see Shikamatsu Kanroku Yukishige.

[Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Shikamatsu Kanroku Yukishige, #5 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series]

Before the attack on December 14, 1702, the aged mother of this warrior committed suicide so he would not be dissuaded from doing his military duty because of his concern for her well-being. Kanroku is shown here with a sad expression, wringing water—which stands symbolically for the tears for his mother—from his sleeve.

Another example is the portrait of Teraoka Heiemon Nobuyuki, the only surviving retainer.

[Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Teraoka Heiemon Nobuyuki, #18 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series]

He did not commit seppuku since he was not present at the raid, but away on assignment to give the news of the raid’s success. After completing his assignment, he became a priest and took care of the tombs of his fallen comrades.

[Graves of the forty-seven ronin at Sengakuji temple in Tokyo, Japan]

The print shows him wearing a combination of his samurai and priest uniform while performing priestly duties, pouring water with a dipper to put out burning coals. Nobuyuki is perhaps the only one in the series shown performing a peaceful action, but the sense of movement is still present.

The serie also included the portraits of Kono Musashi-no-kami Moronao and Enya Hankan Takasada, the antagonist and the young lord of the story. The prints depict the both of them in a way that the audience can see their personalities and strained relationship.

[left: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Enya Hankan Takasada, #39 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series. right: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Kono Musashi-no-kami Moronao, #38 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series]

Moronao wears elaborate garments to represent his role as a master of ceremonies. His pose is one of alarm as he stares back at Takasada, who stands in a menacing posture. On the other hand, Takasada wears different court robes to differentiate his status as a lord. In addition, he does not wear his hat to represent his annoyance and inability to control his temper any longer.

[Close-up of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Enya Hankan Takasada, #39 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series]

The artist captures a tense moment before the young lord loses his composure and attacks Moronao with his sword—an action that would lead to his seppuku, ritual suicide. And, untimely cause his loyal retainers to avenge his death.

Kuniyoshi’s prints capture the personalities of the loyal retainers and their passion. Their dedication to their lord is evident in their integrity coming through their facial expressions and committed battle poses.

[left: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Tokuda Magodayu Shigemori, #37 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series. right: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Uramatsu Handayu Takanao, #19 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series]

Discover the new print collection at Rising Sun - Kuniyoshi’s Biographies of the Loyal Retainers

In honor of the undisputed master of warrior prints, Rising Sun is proud to release highlights from Kuniyoshi’s Biographies of the 47 Loyal Retainers as a 16 print collection.

Kuniyoshi’s work stands the test of time and Rising Sun Prints now honors his legacy as one of the last masters of ukiyo-e printmaking, and the leading model of Bushido values in Japanese art. We hope you enjoy our tribute to his mastery, skill and display of warrior virtue with our latest collection: "Biographies of the Loyal Retainers - The 47 Ronin"

Biographies of the Loyal Retainers - The 47 Ronin - By Utagawa Kuniyoshi - Print Collection