Hazy-night moon (Oboroyo no tsuki)

A masked Noh actor performs the role of the robber Kumasaka no Chohan – a scarf tied round his head and carrying a long pike – who was killed in 1174 when his band  unwisely attacked the young Minamoto no Yoshitsune at Akasaka. There is no moon visible in the print, and the title reminds…

Akazome Emon viewing the moon from her palace chambers

Akazome Emon (956-­1041 AD) was a celebrated woman poet at the Heian court. She served in the household of Fujiwara no Michinaga, the prime minister of the day, and father-in-law of several emperors, and she is considered to have been the main author of the Eiga Monogatari, the Fujiwara family history. Here she is portrayed…

Theater-district dawn moon (Shibaimachi no akatsuki)

It is dawn in the Shibaimachi, Tokyo’s theatre district. Staff and guests of the theatres, restaurants and tea houses make their way home. The blackened teeth and shaved eyebrows of the woman in the foreground indicate that she is married. The silhouettes of the kabuki theatre signs are clearly visible against the purple morning sky….

Moon of the enemy’s lair (Zokuso no tsuki)

O-Usu no miko (Little Prince Usu), aka Yamato-Take no Mikoto, was the physically strong and ruthless third son of emperor Keiko, who reigned from 71-130 AD. The many exploits attributed to O-Usu are described in the Kojiki and Nihonji, major histories compiled in the 8th century. We see him here dressed as a woman and…

Moon over the pine forest of Mio

The warrior surveying the scene is Takeda Shingen (1521-1573), warlord and daimyo of the land-locked Kai province that includes Mount Fuji. He eventually conquered a large part of his region, including Suruga province that gave him access to the sea. Takeda sits here looking at Mount Fuji across Suruga Bay. The poem reads: “On the…

The Moon of the Milky Way (Ginga no tsuki)

According to Chinese legend, the constellations known in the West as Aguila and Lyra represent the lovers Niu Lang (Cowherd) and Zhi Nu (Weaving Girl). They were separated by the Emperor of Heaven and placed at different ends of the Milky Way. They are only allowed to meet on the seventh evening of the seventh…

Inamura Promontory moon at daybreak (Inamurgasaki no akebono no tsuki)

In 1333 AD, general Nitta no Yoshisada finds the route to the Hojo stronghold in Kamakura blocked by the Inamura cliffs and an enemy fleet of warships. He offers prayers and his treasured sword to the sea gods, and asks them safe passage for his army. The tide recedes considerably, causing a corresponding retreat of…

Ariko weeps as her boat drifts in the moonlight

In the Noh play Ariko no Naishi, the Heian court lady-in-waiting Ariko is despondent over an unrequited love. As she prepares to jump from the boat and drown herself, she recites the following verse: “How hopeless it is – it would be better for me to sink beneath the waves – perhaps then I could…

A glimpse of the moon (Kaimami no tsuki)

A design that is irreverently known as “Peeping Tom”. Ko no Moronao, the chief retainer of the 14th century shogun Ashikaga no Takauji, fell in love with Lady Kaoyo, the wife of a court official, and bribed her maids to arrange for him to glimpse her after her bath. When Kaoyo rejected his advances, Moronao…

Takakura moon (Takakura no tsuki)

After having plotted against Taira no Kiyomori in the year 1180, and having been found out, Prince Mochihito – brother of the deposed emperor Takakura – and his companion Munenobu flee from the Takakura mansion disguised in women’s traveling costumes. However, the main character of this scene is Hasebe no Nobutsura, Mochihito’s retainer, who has…

Mount Otowa moon (Otowayama no tsuki)

This represents a scene from the Noh play Tamura. Three itinerant priests meet a man sweeping fallen cherry petals as they visit Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. He is supposed to have been the spirit of the warrior Sakanoe no Tamuramaro, who assisted the priest Enchin in founding Kiyomizu Temple on Mount Otawa. (printed June 1886)

Dawn moon of the Shinto rites (Shinji no zan­getsu)

The Sanno festival is a traditional event still celebrated on even-numbered years in Tokyo. The print shows a float with a dancer impersonating the Dragon King, preceded by another float with a crowing rooster on a drum, passing Edo castle. (printed June 1886)