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  • Thumbnail for The Warrior Usui Matagoro Slaying the Giant White Monkey (Usui Matagor? Hida sanchu utsu dai saru)
    The Warrior Usui Matagoro Slaying the Giant White Monkey (Usui Matagor? Hida sanchu utsu dai saru) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)

    Woodblock print; ink, colors, and embossing on paper. From a group of prints featuring Japanese warriors. Publisher: Nishimuraya Yohachi. The image portrays an obscure, probably fictitious samurai-hero Usui Matagoro slaying a giant white monkey in the Hida mountain, apparently by order of his overlord, the warrior Minamoto (Kiso) Yoshinaka (1154-1184). This reference comes from a contemporary brochure about an annual festival in the town in Aichi (Kariya) that has a float of Matagoro slaying the monkey in it. The brochure identified Matagoro as one the four generals (shitenno) of Minamoto Yoshinaka, hero of the Heike monogatari. Curiously, standard, earlier and reliable sources list four others as Yoshinaka's generals. So it is unclear when the legend of Matagoro arose, though his presence in this print dates it to at least the early 19th century. Yoshinaka himself was a tragic hero immortalized in the Tales of the Heike, that described the figures on both sides of the battles that marked the most important turning point in Japanese history, the founding of the first shogunate (military dictatorship). Yoshinaka was killed in battle by his cousin Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1180), his rival for military control of Kyoto and the emperor. His defeat allowed Yoritomo to become Japan's first shogun in 1185. The twelfth-century struggles between the Taira and Minamoto clans mark a violent end to the long and largely peaceful Heian period (794-1185). The Minamoto or "Genji", were severely weakened in two "disturbances" known as the Hogen and Heiji era insurrections in the 1150s, power struggles at court. The Minamoto leaders were executed, but the lives of two young brothers, Yoritomo and Yoshitsune, were spared. For twenty years the Taira dominated the imperial court under the leadership of Kiyomori, encroaching on the traditional power the Fujiwara nobles wielded over the emperors. Different factions plotted against the Taira with little success until Yoritomo rose in revolt in 1180. Yoritomo, however, allowed the bulk of the fighting to be carried out by his relatives: Yoshinaka, Noriyori, and Yoshitune. The Taira were finally defeated at the naval battle at Dan-no-ura in 1185.