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 by 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 Tomiyuki is a close copy of a Kuniyoshi triptych issued circa late 1830s (shown at right).
The scene depicted here is one of the most commonly depicted musha-e — the chance encounter and ensuing fight on the moonlit Gojôbashi (Gojô Bridge) between Musashi-bô Benkei (武蔵坊 弁けい) the warrior monk (a yamabushi, literally, mountain sleeper: 山伏) and Ushiwakamaru (an earlier name for Minamoto no Yoshitsune, 1159-1189: 源義経). Earlier versions of the story place the protagonists at the Gojô Tennin Shrine and on the balcony of the Kiyomizu Temple, but a Nô play (Hashi-Benkei, Benkei at the Bridge; first half 15th century) and other sources relocate the scene to the Gojô Bridge, with Ushiwakamaru determined to achieve what is called sennin-giri (defeating 1,000 persons). In the version seen in this and other ukiyo-e prints, however, it is Benkei who has embarked upon sennin-giri in order to acquire a suit of armor worthy of his remarkable size and strength. Benkei has agreed to give 1,000 swords to the swordsmith Kokaji Munenobu in exchange for forging the armor, and when he arrives at the Gojôbashi, he is only one shy of his goal. Although the teenaged Ushiwakamaru appears to be an easy mark, he unsheathes his katana (small sword: 刀) and parries Benkei's every thrust. Dumbfounded at Ushiwakamaru's prowess, Benkei drops his naginata ("long sword," a halberd or long spear: 長刀 or 薙刀), concedes defeat, and pledges his allegiance to the "marvelous youth."
The agile Ushiwakamaru (according to Hashi-Benkei, "nimble as a bird or butterfly"), who learned jumping techniques from the tengu king Sôjôbô, leaps out of harm's way as Benkei attacks with his naginata. Ushiwakamaru wears high geta (clogs: 下駄) while gripping his katana in one hand and an ôgi (folding fan: 扇) patterned with the rising sun in the other. At one point, as in Tomiyuki's design, the lad's cloak or veil catches on the curved blade of his naginata. Through it all, Ushiwakamaru's servant stands back, gripping the hilt of his sword, ready to aid his master, though for the moment watching the action from a safe distance.
Although there is some offsetting (misregistration) of the red color block (most visible in the red cartouches) and blue block (right sheet), the wider vertical unprinted areas on the left side of the three sheets (particularly on the right sheet) are margins or sections unprinted by the blue block (i.e., not offsetting). This is commonly encountered in untrimmed or very slightly trimmed prints.
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.