This exhibition shows the legends and stories of Japanese heroes chronologically through musha-e prints,
tsuba sword mountings with correlating imagery with them and Japanese swords.

Warrior Stories in the Age of the Gods

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, “Dragon : Susanoo no mikoto,
from the series Heroes Representing the Twelve Animals of the Zodiac”,

Edo period, about 1842 (Tenpō 13), William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

According to Japanese mythology, gods ruled the land from the beginning of the world until the reign of the first emperor, the legendary Jinmu. Described in the Kojiki (712) and the Nihon shoki (720), as well as in various provincial Fudoki (Gazetteers recording oral traditions), the stories not only tell of gods such as Amaterasu ōmikami and Susanoo no mikoto but also relate various war feats of emperors and provincial nobles.

Although illustrated stories from this early period are rare, beginning in the 18th century, images of warrior gods were included in picture books that compiled warrior tales from many eras. The slaying of the monster Yamata no Orochi by Susanoo no mikoto is commonly depicted on framed votive wooden plaques in Shinto shrines.


Susanoo no mikoto was the younger brother of Amaterasu ōmikami, the Sun Goddess. Because of his rowdy behavior, he was banished from the High Plain of Heaven (Takamagahara), the home of the gods, and came to the upper reaches of the Hinokawa River in Izumo Province. There he met an old couple named Ashinazuchi and Tenazuchi, who were lamenting that they must give their daughter Kushiinada hime as a human sacrifice to the Yamata no Orochi, a monstrous serpent with eight heads and eight tails. Susanoo prepared eight vats of sake, one for each head of the Yamata no Orochi; and when it became drunk, he slew it. In one of its tails he found a precious sword called Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi (Sword of the Heavenly Clouds), and he married Kushiinada hime.

Musha-e Four-panel manga
  • スサノオは出雲で困っている老夫婦
  • 八つの頭と八つの尾を持つヤマタノオロチに、
  • スサノオは八つの酒甕を用意させ、
  • ヤマタノオロチを退治したスサノオは、
Warriors of the Heian Period

During the Heian period, in the tenth to eleventh centuries, samurai warriors who excelled in martial arts joined together in larger groups, giving rise to the powerful Seiwa Genji (Minamoto) and the Kanmu Heishi (Taira) clans.

Minamoto no Yorimitsu, the third-generation head of the Seiwa Genji clan, has been depicted in heroic stories such as “The Earth Spider,” “The Shutendōji of Ōeyama” and “Kidōmaru at Ichiharano”. These stories also appeared in the form of illustrated handscrolls. Yorimitsu’s legendary retainers Watanabe no Tsuna, Sakata no Kintoki (who was known as Kintarō or Kaidōmaru in his youth), Usui no Sadamitsu, and Urabe no Suetake were known as the Shitennō (Elite Four) and make their own appearances individually in various warrior stories.

Utagawa Kunisada I (Utagawa Toyokuni III),
“Watanabe no Tsuna and Sakata no Kintoki Playing Go in a Room with Monsters, with Hirai Yasumasa and Minamoto no Yorimitsu in Background”,

Edo period, about 1815 (Bunka 12), William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Gochiku Sadakatsu,
Tsuba with design of Minamoto no Yorimitsu confronting the Earth Spider”,

Meiji era, 19th century, Charles Goddard Weld Collection

The Defeat of the Earth Spider (Tsuchigumo)

One night as Minamoto no Yorimitsu was lying in bed sick, the shadowy figure of a strange priest appeared to him and told him that his illness was the result of his own actions. It then turned into a spider some seven feet tall and threw out thousands of threads to entangle Yorimitsu. Yorimitsu drew his sword Hizamaru, which he kept beside his pillow, and slashed at the apparition. The spider disappeared, but Yorimitsu’s four leading retainers, the Shitennō, together with Hirai Yasumasa, followed the trail of blood that it left. They found the Earth Spider living in an ancient tomb and killed it.

Musha-e Four-panel manga
The Defeat of the Earth Spider (Tsuchigumo)
  • ある晩、源頼光の館に化け物が現れる。
  • 病の床についていた頼光の前に怪僧が現れ、
  • 頼光の家臣たちは血の跡をたどり、
  • 家臣たちは力を合わせて、

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, “Minamoto no Yorimitsu”,
Edo period, about 1820 (Bunsei 3), William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Unno Yoshimori II,
Tsuba with design of the attack on Shutendōji by Minamoto no Yorimitsu on Mount Ōe”,

Meiji era, 19th century, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Unno Yoshimori II, “Tsuba with design of the attack on Shutendōji by Minamoto no Yorimitsu on Mount Ōe”,
Meiji era, 19th century, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Yasutsuna, “Sword of the tachi type”,
Heian period, 11th century, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

The Shutendōji of Mount Ōe

Minamoto no Yorimitsu, his four retainers known as the Shitennō, and Hirai Yasumasa defeated an evil demon known as the Shutendōji (Sake-drinking Boy), who had been kidnapping young ladies from the capital and taking them to his lair on Mount Ōe in Tango Province. Yorimitsu’s group entered the mountains disguised as yamabushi (mountain ascetics). The gods of the Sumiyoshi, Kumano, and Hachiman Shrines appeared to them in the form of three old men and gave them a liquor called Jinbenkidoku that was healthful for humans but poisonous to demons, and a magical Star Helmet (hoshikabuto). When the group arrived at the home of the Shutendōji, they were treated to a drinking party by the demons. The Shutendōji fell into a drunken stupor and they cut off his head. The head flew through the air and tried to bite Yorimitsu, but he was protected by the Star Helmet. By day, the Shutendōji resembled a young boy with long hair; but at night, he transformed into a gigantic demon.

Musha-e Four-panel manga
The Shutendōji
  • 酒呑童子を退治するため、
  • 途中、住吉・熊野・八幡三社の
  • 酒呑童子の住み家にたどり着いた
  • 頼光達は、
Genpei Wars

Through the Hōgen Rebellion in 1156 (Hōgen 1) and the Heiji Rebellion in 1160 (Heiji 1), Taira no Kiyomori established his political power and the foundations of a military government. However, in 1180 (Jishō 4), Minamoto no Yoritomo raised an army to carry out the Rebellion of Prince Mochihito against the Taira clan, marking the beginning of many battles between the Minamoto and Taira clans until 1185 (Bunji 1), when the Taira were defeated in the Battle of Dannoura. The tales of these battles are recounted in war epics such as the Heike monogatari and Genpei jōsuiki, and these stories make up a large proportion of musha-e subjects.

There are numerous stories about individual military commanders in both the Taira and Minamoto clans, but Minamoto no Yoshitsune in particular appears in many musha-e starting from the time of his youth, when he was known as Ushiwakamaru.

Utagawa Kunisada I (Utagawa Toyokuni III),
“Musashibō Benkei and Onzōshi Ushiwakamaru on Gojō Bridge”,

Edo period, about 1813-14 (Bunk 10-11), William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Tsuba with design of Ushiwakamaru and Benkei fighting on the Gojō Bridge”,

Edo period, 19th century, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Benkei at Gojō Bridge

Wearing a thin robe over his head as an improvised veil, the boy Ushiwakamaru approaches Gojō Bridge in Kyoto. The rogue priest Benkei, who has made a vow to steal one thousand swords, lays covetous eyes on Ushiwaka’s fine sword and challenges him to a duel. To his great surprise, the slender boy defeats him soundly, and he swears his allegiance to the young warrior.

Musha-e Four-panel manga
Gojō Bridge
  • 牛若丸と弁慶は五条の橋の上で出会う
  • 弁慶は牛若丸に戦いを挑むが、
  • 弁慶はとうとう降参し、
  • やがて牛若丸は成人して義経と名乗り、
Stories from the Kamakura Period

Soga monogatari is the tale of two brothers, Soga no Jūrō Sukenari and Soga no Gorō Tokimune, who, after enduring hardship for eighteen years, finally avenge their father’s murder by killing Kudō Suketsune at a hunting event organized by Minamoto no Yoritomo in the foothills of Mount Fuji in the fifth month of 1193 (Kenkyū 4).

Utagawa Kunisada I (Utagawa Toyokuni III), “Lord Minamoto no Yoritomo's Hunt at the Foot of Mount Fuji, a Triptych”,
Edo period, about 1813 (Bunka 10), William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Toshichika, “Tsuba with design of Minamoto no Yoritomo's hunt under Mount Fuji”,
Edo period, 19th century, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

The Hunt at Mount Fuji

In the fifth month of 1185, Minamoto no Yoritomo held a large-scale hunting party in the foothills of Mount Fuji. This was the occasion when the Soga Brothers finally achieved their long-awaited vengeance. During the hunt, a wounded boar ran toward Yoritomo, but Nitan no Shirō Tadatsune jumped onto the boar’s back, riding it backwards, and thrust his short sword into its body to bring it down.

Musha-e Four-panel manga
Soga monogatari
  • 父、河津祐泰が殺された後、
  • 18年後、曽我十郎と五郎は、
  • 兄の十郎はその夜、
  • 弟の五郎は、
Warriors of the Taiheiki

The Taiheiki is a war epic recounting the battles during the first half of the fourteenth century, mostly covering the state of war between the Northern and Southern Courts that lasted to the end of the Kamakura shogunate.

In ukiyo-e, rather than scenes of battle, more commonly illustrated subjects were loyal retainers of the Southern Court, such as Kusunoki Masashige, his son Kusunoki Masatsura, Nitta Yoshisada, and the imperial prince Ōto no miya Moriyoshi, son of Emperor Godaigo. One of the more curious legends that has been depicted since the early days of ukiyo-e involves Kusunoki Masashige, who was killed at the Battle of Minatogawa but returns as a ghost to attack Ōmori Hikoshichi.

Utagawa Kunisada I (Utagawa Toyokuni III), “Ōmori Hikoshichi”,
Edo period, about 1828-30 (Bunsei 11-13), Bequest of Maxim Karolik

Hamano Noriyuki I,
Tsuba with design of Ōmori Hikoshichi carrying a demon”,

Edo period, 18th century, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Ōmori Hikoshichi

As a reward for killing Kusunoki Masashige at the Battle of the Minato River, Ōmori Hikoshichi was awarded territory in Iyo Province. On his way to the celebration, he encountered a young lady of seventeen or eighteen, wearing red hakama, who appeared to be an attendant in a noble household. Thinking that she would have trouble making her way along the mountain road, Hikoshichi offered to carry her on his back. They had gone as far as Hanjō when suddenly the young woman turned into an eight-foot tall demon with bear-like claws, who grabbed Hikoshichi by the hair and tried to fly away with him. Hikoshichi grappled with the demon, but when other members of his group approached, it vanished away. The demon was in fact the vengeful ghost of Kusunoki Masashige, who was trying to disrupt the rule of Ashikaga Takauji by stealing the precious sword carried by Hikoshichi.

Musha-e Four-panel manga
Ōmori Hikoshichi
  • 大森彦七は猿楽の興行に行くため、
  • 不思議に思い声をかけると、
  • 彦七は、山道は難儀であろうと
  • しばらく行くと、女は急に
The Battle of Kawanakajima

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, “The Great Battle of Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin and Their Retainers at Kawanakajima”,
Edo period, about 1845 (Kōka 2), William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Kawanakajima is located in the northeastern part of present-day Nagano Prefecture, in the area where the Sai and Chikuma rivers meet. During the twelve years between 1533 (Tenmon 22) and 1564 (Eiroku 7), the warlords Uesugi Kenshin of Echigo Province and Takeda Shingen of Kai Province fought five battles there. From the beginning of ukiyo-e, the most widely depicted scene was Kenshin and Shingen’s hand-to-hand combat.

The Battle of Kawanakajima

Kenshin, with his head wrapped in white silk to signify his religious vows, mounted on a dapple-gray horse and brandishing his sword, rode straight toward Shingen’s standard. Shingen did not attempt to evade the attack but sat calmly in place and parried Kenshin’s sword stroke with his iron battle fan.

Heroes in Novels

Manjirō Hokuga,
“Illustration from the Book Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki: The Wolf Yamao Attacks a Giant Serpent on Behalf of His Master and Leaves His Bones in the Mountains”,

Edo period, about 1840 (Tenpō 11), William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

In the nineteenth century, lengthy historical novels called yomihon began to be published, and these stories of adventure proved to be highly popular. The print series Tsūzoku Suikoden by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, published beginning around 1827 (Bunsei 10), depicted heroes from a famous Chinese novel in the form of color prints. After this series became a huge hit, musha-e of the 1830s and early 1840s (the Tenpō era) went beyond portraying historical war epics such as Heike monogatari and Taiheiki and began to include fictional characters from novels. The colorful nishiki-e illustrations of heroes that seem to leap off the printed pages and into action must have made hearts flutter, in the same way that color frontispieces of manga magazines are enjoyed by readers today.

Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki (The Tale of the Crescent Moon Bow)

Written by Kyokutei Bakin and illustrated by Katsushika Hokusai, this book was published serially from 1807 to 1811. The hero is a fictionalized version of Chinzei Hachirō Tametomo, who was on the losing side in the Hōgen Rebellion of 1156 and was banished to the island of Ōshima in Izu. In this alternate version of history, the imperial prison ship does go to Ōshima, but Tametomo escapes to Kyūshū. He sets sail from Minamata in Kyūshū in order to attack the Heike once again; but he encounters a severe storm and winds up in the Ryūkyū Islands (now Okinawa Prefecture, but at the time a separate country). There he helps the Ryūkyū queen to put down a rebellion and pacifies the country.

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