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Kuniyoshi's Groundbreaking Depiction of the Tattooed Suikoden Heroes.



From an early age Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) was already intrigued by the depictions of warriors and kabuki actors. 
As a adolescent, 14 years of age, he already was a member of the successful Utagawa school and one of the many talented students under master Utagawa Toyokuni I. After an initial laborious start with modest successes he rediscovered the subject of the Suikoden Heroes and his first few prints were an instant commercial success.


Suikoden Heroes

Kuniyoshi's preference for heroic subjects and themes can be traced already in the earliest period of his career. At first his warrior designs are very similar in style to that of Shuntei (who was also famous for his sumo prints) but it was the Suikoden -series that Kuniyoshi broke free from this influence. His Suikoden prints (known as the '108 Heroes of the Suikoden') in the oban format were inspired on the adaptation by Takizawa Bakin of a comprehensive Chinese heroic novel Shui ho-ch'uan (in Japanese: Suikoden) written in the 14th Century, in the West known as The Water Margin, telling the story of a gang of desperadoes in the 12th Century. These bandits lived in the swamps near the mountain of Liangshan. Their leader was the fearless Song Jiang and the clan was like a bloodthirsty "A -Team" fighting against injustice and for the rights of the common people.


Although Kuniyoshi was not the first Ukiyo-e artist who worked on this subject, the great Hokusai illustrated the book Shinpen Suikogaden (New Illustrated Edition of the Suikoden) in 1805, his innovative interpretation exceeded that of his predecessor. He depicted these Chinese 'heroes' giving the images some kind of supernatural radiation placing the figures in an ultra-dynamic setting. The often tattooed protagonists with their forceful appearance and frightful weaponry were embraced by the public urging Kuniyoshi to add more designs (over seventy!). Later more series on the Suikoden subject were added including one in the smaller chuban format.




Kuniyoshi's outstanding contribution to Japanese art is also to be found in his warrior triptychs. The designs for these triptychs were so distinctive because of his use of masses of black. The three seperate sheets display a clear and dramatic untiy and show a broad appreciation of the possibilities of this format rarely found by Kuniyoshi's predecessors. The individual sheets of the triptychs by, for instance, Kiyonaga and Utamaro can also be appreciated as isolated images but in Kuniyoshi's finest work the sheets are inseperable if the force of the composition is to be experienced.


When Kuniyoshi became a master himself he trained a large number of pupils such as Yoshitora, Yoshimori, Yoshitsuya, Yoshiiku and Yoshikazu. They all worked in a similar style and tradition as Kuniyoshi designing triptychs not unworthy of their master. 
But it was his most talented student Yoshitoshi who developed a unique individual Western orientated style on the same level as his teacher. Yoshitoshi also designed a series on the Suikoden Heroes consisting of 50 chuban prints which are darker in tone and have a more ominous atmosphere. Kuniyoshi's Suikoden designs also had a defining influence on the fashion of body tattoos in Japan.

Ukiyo-e Artists

Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815)
Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848)
Katsukawa Shuntei (1770-1820)
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806)
Katsukawa Hokusai (1760-1849)
Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825)
Utagawa Yoshitora (act. 1850-1880)
Utagawa Yoshimori (1830-1884)
Utagawa Yoshitsuya (1822-1866)
Utagawa Yoshiiku (1833-1904)
Utagawa Yoshikazu (act. ca. 1850-1870)
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)

Books on Kuniyoshi

'Kuniyoshi, the Warrior Prints' by B.W. Robinson
'Of Brigands and Bravery-Kuniyoshi's Heroes of the Suikoden' by I. Klompmakers
'Heroes and Ghosts: Japanese Prints by Kuniyoshi 1797-1861' by R.Schaap & Timothy T. Clark & M. Forrer



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