Miyamoto Musashi Subduing the Whale – Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Japan is a beautiful country and I was mesmerised by the tidal patterns that I could see on the beaches.  I know that sounds odd, as I live quite close to the sea, and I can see the tide changes when I please, but here in the UK we have fairly straight, undisturbed shorelines so when I have previously viewed woodblock prints I have naturally assumed that these were artist representations of waves rather than something that was potentially much closer to the truth.  The volcanic and craggy shore lines of Japan create a wave movement that is unlike anything I have personally witnessed anywhere else.  I consider myself quite lucky to have been there through some good and bad weather so that I could see the shifts and swells for myself.

I have written about Utagawa Kuniyoshi previously as he is known as one of the great masters of woodblock art, and his subjects covered many topics from nature to the great Samurai warriors.  This particular piece combines the two, and is something I witnessed being printed on to cloth while I was in Kyoto.  This was a beautiful yet painstaking process of laying the colours using a large press, and while this was happening in the background of this tiny studio I got to paint my own (much smaller and less detailed) piece.

This is what makes this painting so incredibly special to me, as I stood watching an older Japanese gentleman print this on to cloth, next to another man creating beautiful kimonos in what seemed to be nothing more than a small house in a side street of Kyoto, it occurred to me how modern Japan still revels in its previous culture.  It still retains the processes of the past to keep the history alive and honour their much loved artists.  It may feel that creating multiple replicas of artworks could dampen the appetite for ownership, but woodblock printing was created so that art could be owned by all and that is an ethic I am truly behind.  The rarity of the age of the print and the material it was printed on is where the expense comes in.

This particular piece was originally created as a tryptic, a three piece painting, and the subject lends itself so nicely to this style.

In this piece you can see the Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi imbedding his sword into the back of a whale.  The whale takes up the majority of the painting, dwarfing the warrior and really giving the impression of the size of the creature, even the waves surrounding it seem like mere ripples in the water in comparison.

There is a box of text on the right hand panel which reads “Miyamoto Musashi was born in Higo and became a retainer in Buzen.  He travelled through numerous provinces perfecting his swordsmanship.  Once, at sea off the coast of Hizen, he peirce a right enormous whale with this sword”.  While the warrior is real, the story has few written sources confirming the event, but the tale of this fight has inspired many stories and artworks as tales of valour and martial prowess.

Musashi was known for his dual bladed attacks and holds the record for undefeated duels (61… the next highest was 33 held by Ito Ittosai), so stories of this samurai are held in high esteem across Japan.

Kuniyoshi has created a beautiful image of the tiny warrior riding the back of this beast, covered in seafoam and intimidating.  It really highlights how much power it was felt that this samurai held.

Whales are highly symbolic of creativity, compassion and solitude, which seems odd in the context of this painting, and I know that whaling is still a highly controversial topic as there is little need to continue the practice in Japan, but they maintain it is part of their culture much like the reproduction of woodblock art, so it is something that they will retain doing.  In terms of of the symbolism, the killing and eating of the whale is an important way of transferring the knowledge that the animal holds and taking on its attributes  Food is a huge cultural practice in Japan that goes far beyond just the taste, so while I am not in agreement with killing an endangered species to eat, you do have to respect the heritage that this practice comes with in Japan.

This is by far one of my favourite woodblock creations and the more I look at it the more I can feel the movement of the ocean beneath the whale, the brute force of the samurai and the sheer power between the two battling within the piece.

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