The image comes from the Ashmolean Museum's copy of the print (the British Museum has one too), though an original came up for sale on ebay a few months ago and I was sorely tempted. After a day of being on the edge of bidding, I came to my senses and realised that I couldn't afford it, and anyway, I don't know the first thing about looking after antique Japanese prints. It would be a crying shame if it faded and died under my care. It sold, and I hope it went to a good home.
So, the Christmas present was my (very nice) consolation prize. I first came across the print in 1985 after I started karate and became slightly obsessed with samurai. One of the first books I bought on the subject was Stephen Turnball's The Book of the Samurai: The Warrior Class of Japan (1982), in which just two sections of the triptych were reproduced in black and white, though even without colour I was captivated by the beautiful depiction of the dead's cold visitation on the defiant Taira Kiyomori.
The book (I still have it, somewhat battered now after years of perusal) is full of such magnificent musha-e prints, and I immediately fell in love with the form. I don't know if the ligne claire of Tintin prepared the ground for my attraction to the pure line and flat colours of ukiyo-e, or if my love of both the prints and Tintin are a result of some other predisposition to such things - but I've been enamoured ever since. Turnball's book also introduced me to my favourite director, Kurosawa, as he used several stills from his films as illustrations leading me to seek out, at first, The Seven Samurai, and then more of this master's work, as well as that of his contemporaries (Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse and others).
Taira no Kiyomori (1118-1181) was head of the Taira clan, leading its domination over Kyoto through powerful government positions, defeating his rivals, the Minamoto, and seeing his grandson take the emperor's seat - only for it all to come crashing down at the feet of his revitalised enemies not long after his death. This is told in the Japanese epic Heike Monogatari, and from this comes the scene in the print - Taira (played by the kabuki actor Nakamura Utaemon IV) at his Fukuhara palace, haunted by the vision of all those he has slaughtered in his climb to the heights of power. Mizoguchi actually made a film about the young Kiyomori in 1955, Shin Heike Monogatari (New Tales of the Taira Clan), one of only two colour films he made, and one of the last before his death in 1956.
The artist is one of the big four or five most famous ukiyo-e creators, Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), most well-known for his Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido. Other artists have also depicted the scene - Fukao Hokui (a pupil of Hokusai) in about 1835, and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (a pupil of Kuniyoshi) in about 1882. I like the others, but for me Hiroshige's is the best - the central figure of Kiyomori, grasping his tachi as if he fully intends to defeat all his vanquished enemies once again - though with perhaps a hint of uncertainty in his eyes; the concubine - we're not sure if she too sees the Chancellor's nightmare vision; and the silent, accusing ghosts in frozen white - which at first you may not notice, and then, like the Lord Taira, you start to see everywhere you look.