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Yoshitoshi

Minamoto no Yorimitsu Preparing to Kill the Earth Spider (1892)

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About the Art

Peering over a net with bright yellow eyes, the evil spider tries to lure its prey into its web, unaware that Minamoto no Yorimitsu is readying his sword to strike. 

This design is from Yoshitoshi’s series “New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts”, the last of his works to be published before his death. Within the series, Yoshitoshi draws inspiration from ghost stories, folklore and legend, sometimes combining them with the plots of kabuki and noh theatre. This particular design merges one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories with a legendary tale from Kyoto’s history. 

The “Earth Spider” otherwise known as ‘Tsuchigumo’ was an arachno-creature of Japanese folklore. In a 14th century story, many earth spider monsters attacked the capital (then Kyoto), so the Heian period heroMinamoto no Yorimitsu was called on to help. Yorimitsu was known for slaying other demons, so was unafraid and headed north into the mountains to find and kill the creature. 

There are many different versions of the next part to this story, but judging by the print itself, it seems to allude to the story ‘Heike Monogatari’. In the story, Yorimitsu was in bed fighting off malaria when a large monk-like figure appeared with a rope, attempting to capture Yorimitsu. Despite his ill-state, Yorimitsu deliriously leapt up and cut the figure with his sword, which escaped although injured. The following day, Yorimitsu led his men (the four guardian kings) after the creature, following its trail of blood. The trail took them to a mound where they came across a giant spider; the monk had shape-shifted into its true form. Yorimitsu and his men caught the spider and killed it. Immediately after killing the spider, Yorimitsu’s sickness vanished. The spider was believed to be a vengeful spirit, or ‘Onryō’.

Notable about this series are the crackled edges of the prints, they were designed as having the appearance of a worm-eaten border, emphasising the death-like quality of their subject matter. Back when Yoshitoshi was just 26 years old, he created a series titled ‘Hundred Ghost stories’, but was overly ambitious and made only 26 designs. For this series, however, Yoshitoshi was more realistic with 36 ghosts, which this time resulted in 36 designs. But in a twist of fate, Yoshitoshi was incredibly ill during the creation of this series and didn’t live to see it published, so it was his apprentices who took the project to completion.

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