Tall tales, heroic sagas, stories woven from history and legend — these are the sources from which Japanese printmakers drew to create the vivid images that fill this gallery. Such narratives have been part of the storytelling tradition for centuries and in the Edo period (1603–1868) became part of the puppet and kabuki theater repertory as well. Chinese stories were also popular in Japan, and illustrations from two of the most famous Chinese novels are included in this exhibition.
Many of these prints glorify loyalty, courage, and fidelity unto death, the virtues so often associated with the Japanese warrior class (samurai) beginning in the late 12th and 13th centuries. According to the code by which samurai lived, loyalty and fidelity often dictated revenge for injustices and perceived wrongs within the context of complex struggles for political power. The stories related through these prints touch upon camaraderie, failed ambitions of heroes and political leaders, and noble endings of brave men. The history of the great warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159–89) assumes epic dimensions in its retellings. He was perceived as a threat by his elder half-brother Yoritomo (1147–99), consequently persecuted, and eventually killed. Another true-life story concerns 47 masterless samurai (ro¯nin) who took revenge on behalf of their dead lord in 1703 and became martyrs when they were ordered to commit ritual suicide (seppuku). These dramatic tales live on in numerous forms, including the visually lively and powerful versions on view here.