The artist who was to be known to history as Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川 国芳) was born in Edo (present-day Tokyo) on January 1, 1798. He was the son of a silk dyer named Yanagiya Kichiemon and was given the name Yoshisaburô (芳三郎) at birth. Apparently he assisted his father’s business as a pattern designer, and some have suggested that this experience influenced his rich use of color and textile patterns in prints. It is said that Kuniyoshi was impressed, at an early age of seven or eight, by ukiyo-e warrior prints, and by pictures of artisans and commoners (as depicted in craftsmen manuals), and it is possible these influenced his own later prints.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi was one of the last great masters of the Japanese ukiyo-e style of woodblock prints and painting. The range of Kuniyoshi’s subjects included many genres: landscapes, beautiful women, Kabuki actors, cats, and mythical animals. He is known for depictions of the battles of legendary samurai heroes. His artwork incorporated aspects of Western representation in landscape painting and caricature. His warrior prints were unique in that they depicted legendary popular figures with an added stress on dreams, ghostly apparitions, omens, and superhuman feats.
At the age of 14, Yoshisaburô joined the Utagawa School of ukiyo-e artists, then headed by Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769 - 1825). Toyokuni I gave Yoshisaburô the name Utagawa Kuniyoshi; “Kuniyoshi” being a combination of the names “Toyokuni” (豐國) and “Yoshisaburô” (芳三郎).
The 108 Heroes of the Suikoden
Kuniyoshi achieved a commercial and artistic breakthrough in 1827 with the first six designs of the series, The 108 Heroes of the Suikoden. It was based upon a 14th century Chinese novel about the adventures of a band of 108 honorable bandits and rebels, the Shuihu Zhuan. Individual heroes were illustrated on single-sheets, some featured tattoos, a novelty which soon influenced Edo fashion. The Suikoden series became extremely popular in Edo, and the demand for Kuniyoshi’s warrior prints increased, gaining him entrance into the major ukiyo-e and literary circles.
The story begins with the release of 108 spirits, imprisoned under an ancient stele-bearing tortoise and is then developed by describing life events of various heroes leading to their eventual retreat into Liangshan Marsh. Having defeated a group of soldiers sent by the authorities to arrest them, they settle there as outlaws. As the story progresses, more people come to join the outlaw band, including military personnel and civil officials who grew tired of serving the corrupt government, as well as men with special skills and talents. The plot further develops by illustrating the conflicts between the outlaws and the government after the Grand Assembly of the 108 Stars of Destiny. Song Jiang strongly advocates making peace with the government and seeking redress for the outlaws. After defeating the imperial army in a great battle at Liangshan Marsh, the outlaws eventually receive amnesty from Emperor Huizong. The emperor recruits them to form a military contingent and sends them on campaigns against invaders from the Liao dynasty and rebel forces led by Tian Hu, Wang Qing and Fang La within the Song dynasty’s domain. Although the former outlaws eventually emerge victorious against the rebels and Liao invaders, the campaigns also led to the tragic dissolution of the 108 heroes. At least two-thirds of them died in battle while the surviving ones either returned to the imperial capital to receive honours from the emperor and continue serving the Song government, or left and spent the rest of their lives as commoners elsewhere.
The 108 Heroes of the Suikoden are presented together with the inspirational quotes of a lesser known Lithuanian author Vytautas Karalius.
The Sky Toucher (Mochakuten Tosen)
The world is best felt when confronted face to face. Couple of sparks lights it up more widely than the highest of stars.
The Dragon in the Clouds (Nyûunryû Kôsonshô)
Life would be equal to the truth, if man would be only nature.
The Great Halberd (Daitô Kanshô)
When the nature misses humans similar to it self, it creates one or two geniuses.
The Little Li Guang (Shôrikô Kaei)
Goal increases the power, which in turn increases the goal.
The Winged Tiger (Sôshiko Raiô)
The heart is not a bank with the reserve of gold, but mines of it.
The Flying Deity (Hitentaisei Rikon)
Freedom - Meeting with the world without bothersome mediators.
The Black Whirlwind, also called Iron Ox Li (Kokusenpû Riki, ichimei Ritetsugyû)
The one who does not let brave thoughts in is a bigger coward than the one who does not let them out.
The Red-haired Devil (Sekihakki Ryûtô)
There are less road signs on the way to hell than on the way to heaven.
The Immovable Year Star (Ryûchitaisai Genshôji)
A moment is heavier than eternity: it is possible to add it into life.
the Short-lived Second Son (Tanmeijirô Genshôgo)
A drop is not the modesty of the watter, but rather its smallest potentiality.
The Reckless Third Son (Henmeisanrô Sekishû)
There is no entirety in the moment, but there can be fullness.
The Clever Star (Chitasei Goyô)
If one does not possess a world within himself, then it would not be helpful to him even if the universe would be expanded.
The Miraculous Calligrapher (Seishushosei Shôjô)
Mind is builing bridges, passion is making jumps.
The Ugly Prince Consort (Shûgunba Sensan)
Personality is that part of the lion which is outside the cage. Not the tail of course, but the spirit!
The Brocade Leopard (Kinhyôshi Yôrin)
You should not send your word where you would not dare to go yourself.
Dry-land crocodile (Kanchikotsuritsu Shuki)
Weak people cannot live like an arrow, they want to go back.
The Lord of the Beautiful Beard (Bizenkô Shudô)
Nature hurry at the highest possible speed - little by little.