The second part of our 2021 collection of prints that explore the fighting spirit in Japanese woodblock prints opens online on 20th August 2021. Why do people fight… why do men fight? This universal question crosses cultures and borders, crosses time and faith. There seems to be no explanation… testosterone is the current, science based answer – one that is fit for our science obsessed age, but the facts seems to be mired in culture, belief, need and desperation.
The most poignant of the prints in this selection is by Yoshitoshi, here at the top of the page. In this brilliant print the whole tragedy is served up, somewhat like the hapless severed head offered up by off-stage hands to an enigmatic and timeless warrior. Let us look again at this chilling Yoshitoshi.
The print was made in 1868, the year of violent revolution in Japan, the end of the centuries-old rule by one family and the reinstatement of a titular monarchy driven by a desire for change, for internationalism and for modernisation. It was a crucial and fundamental ideological battle, one that was easily carried by the modernisers. Almost the final significant act was the Battle of Ueno Park, now the site of a popular funfair in modern Tokyo.
It is claimed that Yoshitoshi and his pupil, Toshikage witnessed the battle and that Yoshitoshi started the series, Kaidai hyakusen so (“Portraits of One-Hundred Warriors”) immediately afterwards. The rout was essentially a massacre, the old Shogun’s forces were ill equipped and the new Meiji (Enlightened Rule) government had been armed, quite cynically, with British Lee-Enfield rifles and American Armstrong cannons.
Looking at the portraits, we seem to be looking at historical pictures rather than at Yoshitoshi’s contemporaries. It is possible that – and many experts agree – that this was to avoid censorship or indeed punishment for criticising the brutality of the Imperial forces. In fact the Meiji administration had an eye on the approval of western democracies and was frankly so easily and popularly victorious that there was little or no sanction on artists or publishers and ironically it was the outgoing Tokugawa administration that had been so censorious and restrictive in its measures.
The use of archaic warrior portraits certainly adds a layer of complexity.These figures are nominally portraits of sixteenth century fighters, but inspired by the slaughter at Ueno they become proxy symbols for modern brutality. I can think of similar devices in western painting; perhaps the famous painting by Jacques David, The Oath of the Horatii from 1874. That painting depicts a scene from a Roman legend about a seventh-century BC dispute between two warring cities and stresses the importance of patriotism and masculine self sacrifice for one’s country. The point of the picture was to urge loyalty to the state rather than to clan or family. The point of Yoshitoshi’s series seems to be to stress the utter ubiquity of violence and war in human society.
The cold executioner here is an historic figure, Uesugi Kagekatsu (1556 – 1623). In 1582, Kagekatsu led an army into Etchu and was defeated by Oda Nobunaga at the Battle of Tenjinyama. After a long siege of his allies, Kagekatsu’s fortunes appeared bleak. A letter survives in his hand to Satake Yoshishige which gives a flavour of his indefatigable nature.
Please don’t worry about us.
I was born in a good era. We will fight against over 60 provinces of Japan with only this Echigo province. If we survive, I’ll become an unmatched hero. Even if we are destroyed, my name will go down in history.
Kagekatsu won, Oda Nobunaga died eighteen days after Kagekatsu’s victory.
Here we see an imagined portrait of this ‘unmatched hero’. Unlike his mentor Kuniyoshi who excelled in triumphalist portraits of medieval warriors, there is nothing triumphalist in this rendering. We see a thoughtful Kagekatsu sitting down, his right hand visible on his knee. an unseen figure whose hand is cut by the margin is holding a wooden board upon which sits a severed head.
There is philosophy in Kagekatsu’s eyes… study without remorse, acceptance without responsibility. Perhaps we see in those eyes the first flicker of a pained conscience. The victim of course has all of the awkward frozen grimace of the recently executed. His lips are drawn back, eyes closed, blood staining the neck. It is likely that this is a still more horrific image since such a neat death is likely to be an execution rather than a battlefield wound. Yoshitoshi draws the image of a painted duck against a lakeside setting on the breastplate of Kagekatsu’s armour… a poignant reminder to the hapless victim of the bucolic days he might see if only his eyes were not permanently closed.
Japanese prints abound with the conflicted and driven violent men of the distant and recent past. More often than not these representations are romanticised, something that makes Yoshitoshi’s contribution to the genre all the more shocking, all the more valuable.
The Fighting Spirit in Japanese Prints Part II opens at the Toshidama Gallery on Friday 20th August 2021.