Utagawa Kuniyoshi – Kuwana; Story of the Sailor Tokuzo

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Kuniyoshi, Utagawa


(B) Fine Condition








Kagaya Kichibei


Oban (10"x15")


Ghosts / Spirits, River / Lake / Ocean, Samurai / Warrior, Story

From the series Tôkaidô gojûsan tsui (Fifty-three Pairings for the Tôkaidô Road), No 44.

The Sea Monk (Umi Bozu) is a sea monster with a smooth round head, like the shaven head of a Buddhist monk. This woodblock print illustrates the story of the sailor Kawanaya Tokuzo, who decides to go to sea on the last day of the year, which other sailors consider unlucky. A violent storm breaks out, and the Umi Bozu appears. In a ghastly voice the apparition demands, “Name the most horrible thing you know!” Tokuzo yells back, “My profession is the most horrible thing I know!” The monster is apparently satisfied with this answer and disappears along with the storm.

Perhaps many people can relate!

Fifty-three Pairings for the Tôkaidô Road

Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s woodblock print series “Fifty-three Pairings for the Tôkaidô Road” was published between 1845 and 1846 by Kagaya Kichibei. This series, known for its dynamic and imaginative compositions, vividly depicts the famous Tôkaidô Road, which connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. Each print pairs one of the fifty-three stations along the Tôkaidô with a story or character drawn from Japanese history, folklore, or Kabuki theater. Through his masterful use of bold lines, vibrant colors, and intricate details, Kuniyoshi breathes life into each scene, offering a rich tapestry of narratives that highlight the cultural and historical significance of these locations. His work provides a compelling commentary on the heroism, adventures, and supernatural elements central to Japanese cultural identity during the Edo period.

The Woodblock Print

This oban from 1845 is in fine to very fine condition for its age. Strong color, even toning and light soiling, a mostly clean verso. A few very small wormholes seen from the verso. Margins as shown.

About the Artist

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川 国芳, January 1, 1798 – April 14, 1861) was a Japanese artist who was active during the Edo period, from the late 18th to mid-19th century. He was born in 1797 in Edo, which is now Tokyo, and was the son of a silk-dyer. Kuniyoshi was known for his bold and dynamic ukiyo-e prints, which depicted a wide range of subjects, including historical scenes, kabuki actors, and mythical creatures.

Kuniyoshi began his artistic training as an apprentice in a print shop, where he learned to design and carve woodblocks. He later studied under the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Toyokuni, who was a prominent figure in the Edo period. Kuniyoshi developed his own distinctive style, which was characterized by bold lines, vibrant colors, and exaggerated forms.

Kuniyoshi’s prints were highly popular during his lifetime, and he was considered one of the leading artists of the Edo period. His depictions of kabuki actors, in particular, were highly sought after by collectors, as they captured the essence of the dramatic performances that were popular in Japan at the time.

One of Kuniyoshi’s most famous series of prints is the “One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Suikoden,” which depicts the exploits of a group of Chinese bandits. The series was highly influential and inspired other artists, including the French Impressionist Edgar Degas. Kuniyoshi also created prints that depicted historical events and legends, which were notable for their vivid colors and dynamic compositions.

Despite his success as an artist, Kuniyoshi faced challenges in his personal life. He was accused of producing prints that were critical of the shogunate, which led to him being placed under surveillance by the government. He was also deeply affected by the death of his son, which led to a decline in his health and artistic output.

Kuniyoshi died in 1861 at the age of 63, but his legacy lives on. His prints continue to be highly regarded for their technical skill and artistic merit, and they are housed in major art institutions around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London.