Utagawa Kuniyoshi Benkei woodblock print
benkei detail

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, (1797-1861)

Benkei's Heroic Strength: Playfully Dragging the Bell of Mii Temple up Mt. Hiei
(Benkei ga yuriki tawamure ni Miidera no tsurigane o Eizan e hikiaguru zu)

signed Ichiryusai Kuniyoshi ga with artist's seal and within gourd-shaped Yoshi cartouche at right, and Ichiryusai Kuniyoshi ga with artist's seal at left, published by Ibaya Senzaburo, 1845-46

oban tate-e triptych 14 3/8 by 29 1/2 in., 36.4 by 75 cm
each sheet approximately 14 3/8 by 9 3/4 in., 36.4 by 24.8 cm

Saito Musashibo Benkei (ca.1155-89) was a loyal retainer of Minomoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189), and both historical figures were the subject of numerous myths and legends described in popular literature, theater, and songs and depicted in paintings, prints and other decorative arts. One of the most famous episodes in the life of Benkei is how Yoshitsune earns the allegiance of this rough and independent monk-warrior (sohei). According to the story, Benkei stationed himself at Gojo Bridge in Kyoto and swore to win one thousand weapons by picking fights with passing travelers. After he had collected 999, Yoshitsune, a teenager who had trained with tengu (mythical creatures) at Mt. Kurama, defeated the mighty Benkei with his quick and nimble swordplay. The alliance and adventures of Benkei and Yoshitsune became an extremely popular theme, particularly in the kabuki and no theaters.

This print depicts Benkei displaying his incredible brute strength, dragging the enormous bell of Mii Temple up a mountain. This particular feat is not known to relate to a specific event, but is probably an expansion of a story in which Benkei uses a temple bell to signal strategies for a battle. Benkei is usually depicted as a burly figure, often wearing either a monk's robe or a warrior's armor (or a combination of the two). Although he appears rough on the exterior, he is beloved and revered for his sense of honor and unwavering loyalty to Yoshitsune.

References:
Timothy Clark, Kuniyoshi From the Arthur R. Miller Collection, 2010, p. 71, no. 24, and detail pp. 72-73

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