Yoshitsune has captured the Japanese imagination for centuries. His life and the legends surrounding it were a favorite subject of woodblock print artists hundreds of years after his death. Even today, NHK Television is airing a year long dramatic series on this most famous Japanese warrior. Inspired by the series, Arts and Designs of Japan is proud to present a selection of prints depicting events in the life of Yoshitsune and the Gempei Wars of the late 1100s. We offer scenes of his childhood in the palace of Taira Kiyomori, his youth at the temple in Kurama being schooled in sword fighting by the tengu, his legendary battles at Ichinotani and Dannoura, and his flight into exile. We also offer prints depicting other characters in the Gempei Wars. In the brief outline of his life presented here, the numbers in parentheses refer to the numbers of the prints in our selection which illustrate the scene. We hope that you are enjoying the NHK series as much as we are. We offer these prints from our current collection and we will continue to add prints to this selection as we acquire them.
To anyone looking for more information on the life and mythology of this ultimate Japanese hero, we recommend the books listed below. Ivan Morris introduces the chapter on Yoshitsune in his book "The Nobility of Failure" with the following words:
Minamoto no Yoshitsune, who after a series of brilliant military victories spent his last years as a fugitive implacably hounded by his elder brother until he was forced to commit hara-kiri at the age of thirty, is the perfect exemplar of heroic failure. If he had not actually existed, the Japanese might have been obliged to invent him. Indeed, much of our knowledge about this spectacular young man is invention, a rich fabric of tales and legends woven during the course of the centuries to embellish the sparse historical facts of his career and to create Japan's quintessential hero.
Print artists of the 19th century took much inspiration from the many legends and few facts of Yoshitsune's life. Even as a baby he appears in prints clasped to his mother Tokiwa's breast (#5) as she tries to escape from Kyoto after the death of her husband Yoshitomo (#25 shows Tokiwa and Yoshitomo). Tokiwa was captured and became the mistress of Kiyomori for a time, so Yoshitsune spent some time in the palace of the Taira leader (#4 is a portrait of Kiyomori and two of his sons). At this time, he was known by his childhood name, Ushiwakamaru. He was also later known as Shanao. The most famous legend of Yoshitsune's youth is that of his encounter with the monk Benkei on Gojo Bridge in Kyoto (#9). Benkei tried to steal his sword, but Yoshitsune was able to defeat him using the tricks he learned from the tengu. Another apocryphal story has Yoshitsune and Kisanta posing as gardeners to try to steal a book of military strategy. This is the basis for the Kabuki play Kiichi Hogen, pictured in #27.
The mythological tengu were a favorite subject of print artists. These creatures had large noses (sometimes depicted as beaks) and looked like mountain priests. They supposedly could fly, thus many images of them include wings. They were very skilled in swordplay which they taught to Yoshitsune during the time he spent at the temple in Kurama, supposedly studying to become a monk (#1 & 6).
After discovering his real heritage as a Minamoto, he left Kurama and headed North for the province of Oshu to seek refuge with Fujiwara Hidehira. On the way, he performed his own coming of age ceremony and took the name Kuro (ninth son) Yoshitsune. He also encountered several warriors who became his loyal followers — Ise no Saburo among them (#24). Yoshitsune and his followers were attacked by a band of brigands led by Kumasaka Chohan (#2 & 26). Yoshitsune's defeat of this strongman became the subject of several No plays. Once in Oshu, two other key members of Yoshitsune's retinue were added — the Sato brothers, Tsuginobu and Tadanobu.
In 1180 Minamoto Yorimasa began an uprising against the Taira. He was quickly defeated in a battle at the Uji River (#14). Later the same year, Minamoto Yoritomo, Yoshitsune's half-brother, began his campaign against the Taira, Yoshitsune and his followers left Oshu for Kamakura to offer their services in the revolt. One of the early battles, at Ishibashiyama, is the subject of #15. Minamoto Kiso Yoshinaka then succeeded in driving the Taira out of Kyoto, sending them retreating along the Inland Sea. When Yoshinaka's behavior began to irritate Yoritomo, he sent Yoshitsune to remove him. At the Battle of Awazugahara, Yoshinaka was killed (#13). His wife Tomoe Gozen accompanied her husband into his battles and she is pictured with some of his loyal retainers in #33.
Yoshitsune then became Yoritomo's agent in Kyoto and his delegate to the ex-emperor Go Shirakawa. When Yoritomo decided to pursue the Taira to regain control of the current emperor, the six year old Antoku, and the official Imperial regalia, he at first did not send Yoshitsune. Only when it seemed that the Taira had established an impregnable hold along the Inland Sea, did he finally give orders for Yoshitsune to come to the aid of his other forces. The battle at Ichinotani was a triumph for the young general. He came up with a surprise tactic that sent the Taira retreating to their boats. This battle provided the inspiration for many woodblock print artists (#16, 17, 19, 28, 29 & 36). There is a subplot dealing with the warrior Kumagai Naozane and the young Taira warrior Atsumori that is the subject of Kabuki and No plays and many prints.
The Battle of Ichinotani was not conclusive, but the next battles at Yashima and Dannoura virtually eliminated the Taira clan. The Taira thought they had superior naval skills, but Yoshitsune appears to have been a quick study, because his innovative strategies were successful. There are many stories about these battles, including many about the defeated Taira warriors as well as the heroism of some of the women who were protecting the young emperor (#11, 18, 21, 30, 31, 32, 34, & 35.)
After the defeat of the Taira, Yoshitsune returned to Kyoto, where he was hailed as a hero and given court rank by Go Shirakawa. His growing popularity was seen as a threat by his brother Yoritomo who made it a crime to accept honors unless they came through his new samurai government. He refused to see Yoshitsune or let him enter Kamakura. Yoshitsune was living at the Horikawa Mansion at the time and Yoritomo sent Tosabo there to kill him. The attack was thwarted by Yoshitsune and his loyal retainers, including his mistress Shizuka (#3 & 10). Yoshitsune then began the travels of his last few years. He went West to the Inland Sea, where the famous story of Daimotsu Bay occurred. When Yoshitsune and his followers tried to cross the bay, a storm came up and drowned many of his troops. Legend has it that the storm was caused by the drowned Taira warriors who were seeking revenge. Benkei, who had been a monk, is pictured in the prow of a boat praying for the deliverance of the Taira warriors' souls in order to calm the seas (#7, 8, 12 & 20).
Another part of the journey into exile took place in the mountains of Yoshino. This is the setting for the stories about Shizuka, Yoshitsune's mistress, being abandoned in the snow and the stories about Sato Tadanobu acting as a decoy by donning Yoshitsune's armor and fighting with the monk Kakuhan (#22 & 23). Another famous episode from this journey is immortalized in the Kabuki play Kanjincho. In order to pass through one of the checkpoints set up to catch them, Benkei pretends to be a pilgrim gathering subscriptions for a temple. Yoshitsune acts as a lowly page who Benkei must berate to avoid suspicion. Yoshitsune and his small band of loyal followers eventually reached Oshu, but Yoritomo's spies found them and in the end, Yoshitsune was forced to commit suicide at the age of 30.
Morris, Ivan: The Nobility of Failure, Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan, New York, 1975
McCullough, Helen: Yoshitsune, A Fifteenth-Century Japanese Chronicle. Stanford, 1971
Herwig, Arendie and Henk: Heroes of the Kabuki Stage, Amsterdam, 2004. This book has translations of several of the Kabuki plays dealing with Yoshitsune or the Gempei Wars: Hiragana Seisuiki, Yoshitsune Sembon Zakura, Ichinotani Futaba Gunki, and Kanjincho.
Stevenson, John: Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. Redmond, WA, 1992