Sadanobu Threatening a Demon in the Palace at Night, 1889
Ink on Paper
14 in. x 9 5/16 in. (355.6 mm x 236.54 mm)
Oni feature in many Japanese folk tales and legends. Though some of these creatures are mischievous like goblins, others are frightening and deadly, more akin to demons. In this print, Yoshitoshi depicts a demon with a muscular physique, horns, a mane of wild hair and bulging eyes about to attack Fujiwara no Tadahira (880-949), a high official of the Imperial Court. According to later historical accounts, the minister, also known Sadanobu, was rushing to an appointment at the Imperial Palace late one night, and as he approached the palace, he felt something grabbing his scabbard from behind. Reaching back, he felt the hairy arm of a demon and drew his sword. He shouted firmly that he was on official business for the Emperor and it would be unwise for anyone to get in his way. Intimidated by Sadanobu’s lack of fear, the demon turned and fled.
- Meher McArthur, January 7, 2021
Note: I (p.20-21) of "Yoshitoshi's Thirty-six Ghosts."
On mat, in pencil: Marer 325. Artist's seal: Taiso. Signed: Yoshitoshi.
Colored ink woodblock on paper; oban.
Sadanobu was a prominent Heian nobleman; he is more commonly known as Fujiwara no Tadahira. From the seventh to the eleventh centuries the Fujiwara were the most powerful family in Japan, self-confident and assured of their political pre-eminencee. The empress and most of the chief officials at the Heian court were chosen from the ranks sof the Fujiwara clan. Tadahira served the emperor for forty years during the first half of the tenth century and was considered a decisive and able minister.
A typical story told of Tadahira is recounted in the thirteenth-century history book Okagami. It relates an incident that occurred one evening toward the beginning of his career, when he was hurrying to an appointment at the imperial palace in Kyoto. In the darkness of the outer approaches to the palace he felt something grab hold of his sword. Reaching back, he felt the thick hairy arm and knifelike fingernails of a large demon. He concealed his alarm and seized the offending wrist, shouting that he was going to the palace on the emperor's business and that it would be unwise for anyone to interfere. Surprised at Tadahira's apparent lack of fear, the demon broke free and fled.
The creature in the print is formidible, not like the small oni who harassed Tadahira's Chinese counterpart, Chung Kuei. He is awkwardly drawn, however, muscle-bound and with one leg longer than the other; he is not Yoshitoshi's most successful illustration of a demon.
Tadahira's face is dignified and strong. He is rather heavily whiskered, a convention Yoshitoshi often uses to suggest determination and martial strength. Tadahira wears the ceremonial headdress of his office, derived from the uniform of the Tang Chinese court whose every custom the Heian court studiously copied. His robes have a wonderful black-on-black pattern that catches the light when the print is turned. This effect was obtained by placing the printed sheet on a block bearing the required pattern engraved in relief, then polishing the black surface with the curved edge of a boar's tusk. The technique is called shomen-zuri.
(John Stevenson, Yoshitoshi's Thirty-Six Ghosts, New York: Weatherhill, 1983.)
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