Tsukioka Yoshitoshi is widely regarded as the last great master of the ukiyo-e genre. His career spanned the opening of Japan and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration; a period of radical social, political and technological change during which he pushed traditional Japanese woodblock printing to a new level, even as the advent of photography and lithography were rendering it obsolete. “Yoshitoshi’s courage, vision and force of character gave ukiyo-e another generation of life, and illuminated it with one last burst of glory,” wrote author John Stevenson, reflecting a sentiment that Yoshitoshi himself may have intended in his death poem: “holding back the night / with its increasing brilliance / the summer moon.”
Yoshitoshi completed One Hundred Aspects of the Moon in the year of his death, 1892. Art curator Tamara Tjardes describes it as “a pilgrimage to Japan’s glorious past,” depicting “figures from Japanese and Chinese mythology, folklore, history, literature and theatre.” The series was so popular, she notes, that “townspeople were said to have lined up before dawn to buy a print of the latest image.”
Set in the year 1185, Moon above the Sea at Daimotsu Bay depicts the warrior-monk Musashibo Benkei banishing the spirits of fallen Taira warriors who have called up a storm to sink the boat of his lord, Minamoto no Yoshitsune. According to Japanese folklore, Beneki guarded a bridge in Kyoto, disarming every swordsman who attempted to pass, until he was finally bested by Yoshitsune on his 1000th duel. In western folklore, Robin Hood meets Little John under much the same circumstances, and in both cases the result is a friendship founded upon mutual respect.