artbeat (2006-33)

Ronin Remembered

Kuniyoshi’s Faithful Samurai prints make for fascinating history

by Mike Gibson

More than the rest of us, artists would seem to be well-served by their obsessions. In the case of illustrator Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), his borderline obsessive fascination with the popular legend of the Faithful Samurai served as fodder for an astounding, and an astoundingly beautiful, body of work—in all, he authored 12 print series and 20 triptychs depicting scenes and characters from that stirring chapter in Japanese history.

Three of Kuniyoshi’s Faithful Samurai-inspired woodblock print series, as well as eight triptychs, are currently on display at the University of Tennessee’s Frank H. McClung Museum through Sept. 24. The museum is hosting a special program of activities related to the exhibit, including origami and demonstrations of Japanese swordsmanship, on Sunday, Aug. 27 from 2 to 4 p.m.

The Faithful Samurai story is iconic in Japan, the subject of countless pieces of visual art, literature, and kabuki theater, including the classic 1749 play the Chushingura , from which Kuniyoshi drew both costumes and character names (all of which were changed due to government censorship). The legend has it that in 1701, Lord Asano of Takumi visited the Shogunate in Edo (Tokyo) for an official ceremony. During a rehearsal, Asano drew his sword on Kira of Kozuke, the Shogun’s master of ceremonies, in response to the latter’s repeated insults. A corrupt man, Kira apparently goaded Asano into action when Asano refused to offer him a bribe.

But drawing one’s sword in the palace was illegal, and Asano was sentenced to commit seppuku—suicide through self-disemboweling—that very evening. His property was seized, and the 320 samurai in his employ were dispersed, cast adrift as masterless ronin.

But more than a year later, 47 of the ronin reconvened and carried out their late master’s revenge. On a snowy evening in December of 1702, they stormed Kira’s household, dispensed with his retainers and cut off his head, which they then took to the temple where Asano was buried. There they awaited arrest, and there they were also buried, having been forced to commit seppuku in February of 1703, despite an outpouring of public sympathy.

That Kuniyoshi himself was moved by the ronin’s loyalty and their act of righteous vengeance is plainly evidenced in these woodblock prints, created from his original, lovingly rendered illustrations. In repose, his ronin are possessed of an austere nobility, their grim sense of purpose plain even in smooth, lineless faces. When depicted in motion, they are dynamism itself, fierce, kinetic, yet clearly endowed with the fluid grace of trained samurai warriors.

In one set of prints—Seichu gishin den, or “Stories of the faithful hearts and true loyalty”—Kuniyoshi’s admiration spills over to depictions of the ronin’s family members, many of whom endured hardships or even sacrificed their own lives to the cause. These illustrations are often integrated with Japanese text, in a way nods toward modern-day folks artists like Howard Finster, or the designers at Knoxville’s own Yee-Haw Industries.

Kuniyoshi began his career as a textile dyer in his family’s business, and as such, his use of color is almost as striking as his illustration. His prints are rich and vibrant, but realistically so; his kabuki-inspired costumes are variegated, but tasteful, even chaste; his skies and rivers are characterized by gradations in hue, paling and darkening increments rather than changeless washes of blue.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of Kuniyoshi’s work is how familiar it feels to the Western eye. Looking at the faces and figures in one of his prints—particularly one of those from the Seichu gishi shozo, or “Portraits of Faithful Samurai” series—almost puts one in mind of some of the more sophisticated American cartoon art of the 19th century. Kuniyoshi is said to have spent a great deal of time studying Western illustration techniques, and it shows; most American artists today will probably find that their own work has more in common with his than that of modern anime.

It’s easy to see why Kuniyoshi was so taken by his subject matter; the story of the Faithful Samurai is at once enchanting, suffused with the mystery and mysticism of feudal Japan, and yet freighted with ineffable sadness and a stark nobility. It’s also easy to see why of all the artwork the story inspired, visual and otherwise, Kuniyoshi’s is arguably the best remembered.