Foxfires of the Twenty-four Examples of Filial Piety
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Foxfires of the Twenty-four Examples of Filial Piety, 1892
Ink on Paper
13 7/8 in. x 9 5/16 in. (352.43 mm x 236.54 mm)
Note: XXX (p.78-79) of "Yoshitoshi's Thirty-six Ghosts." Princess Yaegaki with foxfires: When her lover was sent to find a magic helmet, Princess Yaegaki realized an ambush was planned. She retreived the helmet herself and then crossed an icy lake with the help of foxes, whose tails of fire marked safe passage.
On mat, in pencil: Marer 426, exhib. 11/93, Thirty-six Ghost Stories. Description on verso of mat. Artist's seal: Taiso. Signed: Yoshitoshi. Engraver: (unknown). Printed: 1892.
Colored ink woodblock on paper; oban.
Meiji period Japanese color woodblock print with an image of a woman, in a flower covered red robe, dancing, surrounded by small flames.
Princess Yaegaki found herself in as difficult a situation as Romeo and Juliet, with whom this story from the play Honcho Nijushiko, or Twenty-four Examples of Filial Piety, is approximately contemporaneous. The daughter of Uesugi Kenshin, she was the lover of Takeda Katsuyori, son of her father's rival, Takeda Shingen (3).
Written for the Bunraku puppet theater, Honcho Nijushiko was first performed in 1766, and later adapted for the Kabuki stage. As with many Kabuki plays, its plot is extremely complex and occasionally contradictory.
During the bitter civil wars of the mid-sixteenth century, the Ashikaga Shogun was assassinated. The Takeda and Uesugi families called a halt to their incessant feuding so that they could hunt for the murderer. Each pledged to kill their family heir if they failed. Three years later they had still not caught the assassin, and the pledges were carried out. However, a loyal samurai was substituted for Katsuyori, the Takeda heir. Katsuyori entered the Uesugi castle in disguise, intending to recover a magical war-helmet. This was a Takeda heirloom, entrusted to the Suwa Hosho shrine, whose priests had given it to the Uesugi clan. Uesugi Kenshin secretly recognized Katsuyori and ordered him on a mission where he could be ambushed.
Princess Yaegaki learned of her lover's danger but was prevented from warning him by an icy lake outside her father's castle that she was afraid to cross. She prayed to the god of the Suwa shrine, who sent a white fox to protect her. Here in the print we see the princess carrying the horned helmet, decorated with flowing white hair, as she follows the magic foxfires across the frozen lake. Her furious dance as she is possessed by the fox spirit is the climax of both Bunraku and Kabuki performances.
The princess's robes are embroidered with chrysanthemums, an imperial motif, and she wears an ornate headdress of artificial flowers. The gray background is enlivened by the grain in the cherry-wood printing block. Flames floating in the air are a convention denoting the presence of the supernatural.
Princess Yaegaki's mission was successful, and her lover lived to fight another day. He lost to Oda Nobunaga in the decisive battle of Nagashino, where he threw wave after wave of cavalry against a wall of withering arquebus fire, as in the bloody finale of the film Kagemusha, whose plot is based on events following the death of Takeda Shingen. Katsuyori was eventually killed in 1582, his severed head taken to Nobunaga to gloat over. Uesugi died in 1578 from an apoplectic fit in his bathroom.
Stevenson, John. Thirty-Six Ghosts. Hong Kong: Blue Tiger Books, 1992.
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