Non-theatrical depictions of warriors — musha-e (warrior prints: 武者絵) — are rarely found in Osaka printmaking, despite the widespread popularity of the genre in Edo-based print publishing. Of course, the Edo artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) springs to mind, the master of musha-e, whose works nearly swept away all others from the field. (There were, as well, the earlier Torii and Katsukawa artists, and also some exceptions among Kuniyoshi's contemporaries such as Hokusai, Eisen, and the Utagawa printmakers.) Just as Osaka artists followed Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) for their infrequent forays into fûkeiga (landscape prints: 風景画), Kuniyoshi's published works served as models for musha-e. Indeed, the present design by Sadahiro is a close copy of a Kuniyoshi triptych issued circa late 1842-43 (see image at right).
This scene portrays Taira no Kiyomori (平清盛 1118-81), ruler of the Taira clan since 1153, who is credited with establishing the first samurai-dominated administrative government in the history of Japan (1167). He had previously suppressed the Hôgen Rebellion (1156) involving disputed succession to the imperial crown, and then turned against his ally in that conflict, Minamoto no Yoshitomo (1123-60), defeating him and his sons in the Heiji Rebellion of 1159. Years later, rivals, including the Minamoto, rose up against the Taira, initiating the Genpei War (源平合戦 Genpei gassen), which lasted from 1180 to 1185. Kiyomori died from a violent fever in 1881, never witnessing the end of the conflict that culminated in the fall of the Taira and the eventual establishment of the Kamakura shogunate under Minamoto no Yoritomo in 1192.
Taira no Kiyomori put great effort into building, most prominently the magnificent palace at Fukuhara-kyô (福原京, Capital of Fukuhara), the seat of Japan's Imperial Court, and capital of the country, for roughly six months in 1180 (afterward the court returned to Kyoto). Fukuhara was also the center of Kiyomori's power and the site of his retirement palace. Kiyomori also restored at great expense the temples of Miyajima. Notorious for his impatience at the slow progress of his building projects, legend has it that Kiyomori used incantations to stop the setting sun so that work could continue unabated.
Osaka print buyers were aware of and admired the Edo original, but they desired an example with the signature of one of their own artists, especially in a genre and format of great rarity in Kamigata. This musha-e — in less good condition than our usual offerings — is for the collector who craves uniqueness.
See the recently published Japanese Warrior Prints, 1646-1905 by James King for much more about musha-e. The classic Kuniyoshi: The Warrior Prints (1980) by B.W. Robinson is certainly an indispensible resource for musha-e by Kuniyoshi, and it includes the Kuniyoshi version as color plate 41.