YOSHITOSHI TSUKIOKA: One Hundred Views of the Moon, 1885-1892

This is Yoshitoshi's most popular series: the selection demonstrates why. More can be seen at the Stuart Jackson Gallery.

The Gion District
The Gion District

The scene is from a kabuki play based on the true story of the Forty-seven Ronin, samurai who became ronin, masterless men, when their master was forced to commit suicide for the sin of being naive. The tale of how his retainers avenged him, and were then forced, in their turn, to commit suicide, caught the Japanese imagination, and the forty-seven ronin are cultural heroes in Japan even today.

The youth is the son of the leader of the Ronin, who is delivering a secret message to his father. His youth is emphasised by his long forelocks, making his later death as the youngest conspirator the more tragic.

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Mount Yoshino Midnight Moon
Mount Yoshino Midnight Moon

Sasaki no Kiyotaka, an unsuccessful courtier to the Emperor Go-Daigo, was forced to commit seppuku because of some particularly bad advice -- he advised Go-Daigo to attack Ashikaga Takauji's armies, despite the weakness of the Imperial position. Disaster ensued.

Sasaki's ghost haunted the Imperial Court-in-exile until Lady Iga no Tsubone confronted it, persuading it to leave. Yoshitoshi also portrayed Lady Iga in his triptych Famous Women of Japan.

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Moon and Smoke
Moon and Smoke

Until WWII, fire was a constant danger in Japan, where, even today, in smaller villages that escaped the attentions of the Americans, the traditional building materials involve wood, creosote, rice paper, and thatch.

Fire-fighters were organised into competing, independent companies who put a great deal of effort into claiming a fire, and the fee for putting it out. This print shows two standard bearers, for different companies, stationed on the rooves of burning buildings, holding their companies' signs.

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Mount Ji Ming Moon
Mount Ji Ming Moon

Zhang Liang (?-198 BCE) served Liu Bang in the establishment in 206 BCE of the Chinese Han dynasty. Most of the information about him is recorded in Sima Qian's Historical Records, written less than a century after the events it describes.

On the night before the final confrontation between Liu Bang and his rival, Xiang Yu, Sima records that Zhang Liang climbed Mount Ji Ming to a place where he could overlook the enemy's camp. There, he played tunes from Chu province, the home of Xiang and his troops, inducing such homesickness in the ranks that six thousand deserted, leaving Xiang so vastly outnumbered that he committed suicide.

Sima also records that Zhang resigned his post after the war to take up the Taoist pursuit of immortality. At the time, it was believed that, if a man could learn to live on salivia and hold his breath for ten thousand heartbeats, he would achieve immortality. This works: Zhang died of self-inflicted starvation in 198 BCE.

One reason paper will never go out of style is that the web can not convey the detail and wonder of a print like this. Like many Yoshitoshi prints, it includes an embossed pattern -- on the outer robe -- that has been polished to a fare-the-well -- which can just barely be made out in the larger graphic linked below.

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Inaba Mountain Moon
Inaba Mountain Moon

In 1564, Oda Nobunaga was besieging an impregnable castle atop Inaba Mountain. The young Hideyoshi realised there was an unguarded route in, because the defenders relied on sheer rock face to defend them. Taking six men, he lead a climb up an (almost) impassible cliff and took the castle.

I find this story fascinating, for it is accepted as true by historians of Japan, while the biblical account of Joab's climb up a (much shorter) water shaft at Jerusalem is dismissed as a fable, despite the existence of a convenient water shaft in precisely the right place.

Just as well, perhaps, that Oda Nobunaga never managed to convince anyone but himself that he was a god....

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Suzaku Gate Moon
Suzaku Gate Moon

This depicts Minamoto no Hiromasa, a Heian courtier famous for his musical talent. It is said that he was such an exceptional player that he could find no one who would play with him. There are two interpretations of this image: one says that the player facing forward is Minamoto's teacher, the other that he is a ghost or spirit sent to in answer to a prayer for another musician who would play with him.

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Cassia Tree Moon
Cassia Tree Moon

A Buddhist story holds that there are eight magical cassia trees growing on the moon, the seeds of which are given to anyone who achieves enlightenment.

Wu Gang was a legendary Daoist magician who used his powers for evil. As punishment, he was condemned by the gods to spend eternity chopping down the eight cassia trees, which would immediately grow back.

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Yugao
Yugao

What is it about women, that so many of us admire cads? The ghostly female is Yugao, one of the numerous lovers of the appalling Prince Genji, protagonist of what is likely the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji, written by Lady Murasaki of the Heian court. It says much about the decadence of the court that Genji seduced the mysterious Yugao because she had beautiful handwriting: being a thin and fragile creature, she was not, for her time, a raving beauty, and, if she fell for Genji, she was no great shakes in the brain department, either. At any rate, he lured her to his villa and had his way with her. Within hours, she died, killed by the jealous ghost of a former mistress of the wayward prince. Here she is seen in her own garden, among the moonflowers -- yugao -- for which she was named.

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Sumiyoshi Full Moon
Sumiyoshi Full Moon

This is the print that brought Yoshitoshi to my attention, and remains one of my two favourites.

Fujiwara no Sadaie (1162-1241), also known as Fujiwara no Teika, was a famous poet, anthologist and diarist. He has fallen asleep -- some say he is sleeping off the sake -- at the Sumiyoshi shrine, a shrine dedicated to the god of poetry, Hitomaru. The god has appeared in the moonlight looking rather like any householder might if he found a drunk sleeping in his front courtyard.

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The full moon coming with a challenge...
The full moon coming with a challenge...

Once the Tokugawa shogunate was established (1600), warriors were superfluous, and samurai faced unemployment and poverty. Out of this grew gangs of otokodate, who aspired to the image of the ancient samurai, but were usually little more than thugs.

Fukami Jikyu struts down the street, every line of his being radiating pride. He was so feared as a criminal that a entire division of police was sent his arrest. He refused to co-operate with the court, on the grounds that a samurai could not be treated like a common criminal, was exiled for thirty years, returned, became a monk, and lived to be ninety. Crime pays.

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Gojo Bridge Moon
Gojo Bridge Moon

Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159 - 1189) is one of Japan's most popular folk heroes, and his first encounter with the giant warrior-priest, Benkei, on the Gojo (Fifth Avenue) Bridge, is the most popular tale about him. Yoshitoshi did several treatments of Yoshitsune and Benkei, including in the series Mirror of Famous Generals, and Yoshitoshi's Courageous Warriors.

This encounter purportedly took place when Yoshitsune was sixteen. Despite Benkei's superior size and experience, Yoshitsune beat him, winning Benkei's loyalty unto death -- an early death brought on by Minamoto no Yoritomi's jealousy at Yoshitsune's popularity.

In this print, only Yoshitsune is shown, in one of the martial arts leaps he learned from Sojobo, the Tengu King.

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Moon of Enlightenment
Moon of Enlightenment

The night clouds dissolve
Hotei pointing at the moon
holds no opinion

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As I look out into....
As I look out into the vast expanse...

Abe no Nakamaro (701 - 770) was sent to China with a mission to study timekeeping, and stayed at the Tang court 30 years. His fortunes ranged from the governorship of northern Viet Nam to a spell in prison: although he tried, he never returned home. The poem that gives the print its title was written during his prison term, expressing his longing for Japan.

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Katada Bay Moon
Katada Bay Moon

Saito Kuranosuke was a general in the period of Japanese Unification, 1560-1600, during which Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu reimposed order after the Onin War and the collapse of the Ashiga shogunate. He fought for Oda, Shibata Katsuie, and Hideyoshi, and was rewarded with land in Higo province. However, he was forced to commit suicide the next year, on charges of maladministration.

He is shown at Katada Bay on Lake Biwa, where he and his son fled after the death of Oda in 1582.

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Ishiyama Moon
Ishiyama Moon

Murasaki Shikibu( 973?-1025?) was extremely well educated for a woman of her time and, after a lacklustre marriage ended with her husband's death, was brought to the Imperial Court to be part of Empress Shoshi's literary entourage. It was there she wrote the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji, still considered a masterwork. It is said that she retired to the temple at Ishiyama to begin her tale, and the location, the colour of the outer robe -- Murasaki means purple, and the similarity of this portrait to the one in Famous Women of Japan would have made the subject of the print clear to the educated Japanese viewer.

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Monkey Music Moon
Monkey Music Moon

The solitary figure is a high-ranking samurai of the Edo Period (1600 - 1868), dressed for a formal occassion, a Noh play, and standing at the back of a Noh stage. Everything about him is stiff and correct for his station and place. It is easy to read a certain aristocratic disdain into his features.

The people he is looking out, and probably down, on are commoners coming to the play. They are lively, active and excited. It is hard not to contrast them with the samurai -- who comes out the better depends, I suppose, on one's own attitudes....

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Does the cuckoo also announce its name from above the clouds?
Does the cuckoo also...

Minamoto no Yorimasa served as a captain in the Imperial Bodyguard. He is said to have shot with an arrow a monster that was disturbing the Emperor's sleep.

The print portrays a moment in the ceremony in which the Emperor rewarded Yorimasa with a sword. As the Minister of the Left came down the steps to present the sword, a cuckoo called in the night. The Minister, a good Heian courtier, immediately composed a poem comparing the call to Yorimasa's fame. Yorimasa finished it:

    I only bent my bow
    and the arrow shot itself.

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Shizu Peak Moon
Shizu Peak Moon

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536 - 1598) was a military and political genius who served Oda Nobunaga. A homeless peasant child, and an ugly man, he expected to inherit Oda's mantle at his leader's death, but had to fight for it against rivals who felt he had neither the birth nor the breeding to rule. Here he sounds the attack for the the battle of Shizugatake, in which he routed his foes, to become undisputed master of Japan.

Hideyoshi's administration became the basis of the Tokugawa shogunate. He feared central government, so based his structure on feudalism and personal ties. Despite the fact that both he and Oda had risen from obscurity to power, he loathed social mobility and legislated a static class society in which no one could escape the class he was born to. He also dreamed of conquest in China, and captured a good chunk of Korea before he died.

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Pleasure is this...
Pleasure is this....

A peasant couple, she breastfeeding thier infant son -- his shaven head is visible on her left -- relax at the end of a day. The print would be loaded with allusions for the educated Japanese -- to a print by Kusumi Morikage and a poem by Tachibana no Akemi. To western eyes, it is a pastorale. Either way, it is a break from the aristocratic concerns behind most of the series, and a reminder that, whatever might happen to the Minamoto clan, most of history is enacted by the lowly, whose names do not come down in legend, but whose lives are as filled with meaning as any samurai's.

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Since the crescent moon...
Since the crescent moon I have been waiting for tonight

The traveller is the poet Basho, the farmers are celebrating the mid-autumn festival. They have arranged a seasonal ikebana and the traditional foods for the viewing of the moon.

Basho (1643 - 1694) was born into the samurai aristocracy but, at 22, abandoned his post with the lord of Iga to live in a hut and write poetry. He travelled extensively, visiting sites of historical note, and keeping a detailed diary.

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