The Old Palace at Soma: Princess Takiyasha Summoning a Demonic Skeleton to Attack Oya no Taro Mitsukuni (triptych). Utagawa Kuniyoshi c. 1844, British Museum, London

(I highly recommend viewing a larger, cleaner and more detailed copy of the image : http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3a/Mitsukuni_defying_the_skeleton_spectre_invoked_by_princess_ Takiyasha.jpg)

Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s triptych print is a perfect example of Ukiyo-e, Japanese ‘Floating World’ Prints. I find this period in Japan really interesting because it was totally cut off from the rest of the world (except for limited trade with Korea), and was under the rule of the Tokugawa family’s military dictatorship for almost 200 years! The Tokugawa clan was known for it’s ironclad rules, regulations and numerous bans. Bans were placed upon gambling, the extravagance of the lower classes (people were literally not allowed to display clothes finer than their station), prostitution and theater. Often, these things occurred anyway, as the merchant class grew and become wealthy, the red light district flourished. From the red light district theater and art expanded as well. It is from this district in Kyoto that the name Ukiyo-e emerges, as it was often referred to as the “Floating World”. It was during this time that Kuniyoshi’s piece was printed, depicting the legend of Princess Takiyasha, who is a daughter of Masakado, a member of the fallen leaders of Japan, the Taira clan – a true (if highly romanticized) story! The scene takes place at the ruined palace Soma, where Takiyasha lives as a sorceress, plotting revenge. She sits to the side, in a room with broken blinds, summoning a skeleton specter from a scroll to combat the samurai Mistukuni. The samurai has been sent to subjugate conspirators against the court.
The year the print was created, a new kabuki version of this legend had been released as well. However, due to the Tokugawa government’s bans, no portraits of the actors could be released, as had always been customary. The print is a disguised scene from the performance, which can be seen by looking at the third human, a man with a fierce looking face. In fact, his face is actually covered in kabuki makeup. The print seems to more like a social commentary; Kuniyoshi’s Ukiyo-e were known for their history, drama and supernaturalism, as well as their satirical value.
I love the piece for a variety of reasons: not only because it is a perfect example of Ukiyo-e, or because it’s a strong and beautiful work of art, but also because it reflects the culture and dissonance of the time. Its very striking, which is amazing when one considers that Kuniyoshi was even forbidden from using certain colors.

Sources:

images found on wikipedia.org
Japanese Art by Tomoko Sato
Tales of the Heike translated and edited by A. L. Sadler

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