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From White Mountain to Bunker Hill: A Japanese Print Links East & West


The Death of Murata Sansuke
The Death of Murata Sansuke (村田三助の死),  Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) was a Japanese artist who did prints based on current events, as well as scenes from Japanese history and mythology.  He is known for his dramatic, grotesque and bloody themes, as well as the technical excellence of his drawing.  I learned about Yoshitoshi in a book I saw at the Austin Public Library some thirty-five years ago, and it was there that I first saw the print shown above.  “The Death of Murata Sansuke” is a scene from the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, in which discontented samurai staged an unsuccessful uprising against the Japanese government, which had stopped their pensions and put restrictions on the public wearing of swords.  The newly-raised, modern national conscript army proved its worth by beating the aristocratic samurai, who had thought that their traditional discipline and swordsmanship would give them an easy victory over their “peasant” opponents.  Despite their defeat, many Japanese admired the noble way the samurai had defended their traditional way of life.  Murata Sansuke was one of the rebellion’s generals, and prints like this would have been the Japanese equivalent of Currier and Ives engravings being published during, or shortly after, the American Civil War.  But the picture above becomes even more interesting when you look at the one below.

Battle at Bunker's Hill.
"Battle at Bunker's Hill"  Image ID 808535, New York Public Library


This picture is an engraving of American artist John Trumbull’s painting of “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775”, done in several versions between 1815 and 1831.  It’s an iconic image of the American Revolution, and you’ve probably seen it before in one of your high school textbooks or in a TV documentary.  Notice the spacing and dramatic poses of the figures in Trumbull’s paintings, then look back at the Yoshitoshi print.  Ignore the people on horses and the Japanese Shiroyama (White Mountain) Castle in the background, and you’ll see that the Japanese printmaker copied the American painter’s poses and composition while dressing the combatants in Japanese uniforms and adding his own trademark “buckets of blood”.

This leads to interesting questions about how and why Yoshitoshi copied Trumbull’s work.  There was plenty of Western printed matter in previously-isolated Japan by 1877, but which version of the Bunker Hill image did Yoshitoshi see, book illustration or print, and where did he encounter it?  Was he facing a deadline which forced him to resort to copying to save time, or did he admire the original and make his version as a tribute to it?

This small cross-pollination of West and East is especially interesting in a time of debate over copyright laws and “cultural appropriation”.  I think of the Yoshitoshi work as a reiteration of the Trumbull painting, with enough changed and added that the one seems almost more inspired by the other than copied.  But that’s maybe because I love Meiji-era (late 1800’s/early 1900’s) art, with its traditionally dressed Japanese waiting for steam trains at Western-style stations and kimono-clad women playing in string quartets or looking through a telescope.   To some the crossing of cultures “brings monsters”, but to me it produces sturdy hybrid offspring which are sometimes wonders to behold. 

(As far as I know, the similarity of these two works hasn’t been remarked on in any book or publication.  If it has, I cheerfully acknowledge my predecessor.)    


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