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Kuwana: the Story of the Sailor Tokuzô (1845)

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About the Art

A sailor grasps hold of his ship’s anchor in an attempt to battle with the tempestuous sea. As the ship dips down a colossal wave, Tokuzô has a chilling feeling and turns to see a shadowy figure, peering down at him with his beady eyes.

Kuniyoshi was the master of supernatural phenomena and used his flair for storytelling to explore the depths of Yōkai mysteries. This piece is a prime example of the paranormal Japanese folklore character ‘Umibōzu’, meaning “sea priest”. Upon translating the print’s inscriptions, it sets the scene around Tokuzô, a warrior who chose not to abandon ship on a frosty New Year’s Eve, despite superstitions, as he was unafraid. But quickly a storm picks up and Umibōzu appears. He asks the sailor “Name the most horrible thing that you know!”, to which Tokuzô replies, “My profession, that’s the most horrible thing I know.” Satisfied with his answer, the Umibōzu leaves, taking the storm with him.

Umibōzu is a sea spirit whose true form is unknown, as it is usually witnessed from the shoulders up. It tends to have a human-like silhouette, but with inky black skin and two very large round eyes. Usually Umibōzu appears to sailors on still waters, quickly turning the calm sea into colossal crashing waves that break ships apart. It was believed that Umibōzu were the spirits of priests who’d been drowned by villagers, so were trapped and seeking revenge, which explains their name as “sea priest”. 

The Umibōzu would drown sailors by demanding barrels to fill up with huge amounts of water to throw over the deck to sink the ships. The only known escape was to trick the Umibōzu by giving it a bottomless barrel, which confuses it and provides the sailors with enough time to make their lucky escape.

This Kuniyoshi piece is titled ‘Kuwana’, a city in Japan, as it’s Station 43 from the series ‘53 Pairings for the Tôkaidô Road’, which was jointly designed by Hiroshige, Kunisada, and Kuniyoshi.

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