Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre – Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Don’t you hate the feeling of someone looking over your shoulder and watching your every move?  It really irritates me.  Obviously, if it was a huge skeleton, I might feel a little differently about it, but as there is no resident witch around I don’t think that this situation is going to be around the corner for me.

Kuniyoshi, was a undeniably one of the great masters of the wood block art style ukiyo-e, a style which really flourished between the 17th and 19th century in Japan.  Kuniyoshi was working around the end of this era, but produced some of the most beautiful prints, incorporating some of the western landscape and anatomical styles, making his work a juxtaposition between a classic Japanese heritage art form and a union between the east and west coasts of the world.

It is probably no surprise to anyone that this particular triptych catches my eye, which the macabre legend that it is interpreting.  The huge looming skeleton over the betrayers while the heroine hides away on the the first sheet.

Princess Takiyasha, was the daughter of the warlord Taira no Masakado, who had tried to set up an ‘Eastern Court’ in Shimōsa Province, which happened to be in direct competition with the Emperor in Kyoto.  The rebellion was unsuccessful and Maskado was killed.

Princess Takiyasha was, quite rightly devastated by her fathers death, and continued to live in the ruins of the palace of Sōma.  It is probably at this stage of the story I should point out that Takiyasha has the literally meaning of waterfall demon princess (I have always needed one word for that) and she was a sorceress (or witch…which ever you prefer).

There are a few versions of how this story pans out, so I am going to take the track that a great warrior Ōya no Tarō Mitsukuni, heard tale of the defeat and that Takiyesha had raised an army of her fathers remaining loyal soldiers and the dead to continue her fathers rebellion, and he decided to travel to the palace to see if the rumours were true.

Takiyasha disguised herself as a prostitute on Ōya no Tarō Mitsukuni’s arrival, and tried to seduce him, but suspecting a trap he gave great details of her fathers murder.  Unable to contain her emotions, she fled from the warrior in tears.

Later that night, Takiyasha ambushed Mitsukuni with an army of skeletons, unleashing Gashadokuro, a skeleton that was supposedly as large as a castle.  Riding in to battle on the back of a toad, Takiyasha was ultimately defeated in this attack and her plans to continue her fathers rebellion ceased.

Kuniyoshi, depicts the moment that Gashadokuro reveals itself within the ruins of the Sōma palace.  The foreboding skeleton leers over the warrior and his companion as Takiyasha reads of mystical scrolls to bring the skeleton to life.  It’s a daunting scene as the skeleton appears out of a black void, pushing aside the tattered drapes of the ruins.

I love the stylisation of the wood block form, its so easy to spot and identify, and I particularly love the historical or mythological representations as the style gives the stories a defined genre, and the colours used almost makes it feel like a child’s picture book.

I would certainly recommend that you take the time to look in to this fascinating art form and the stories behind it as it has a reverent place in art history.


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