On a moonlit fall night, the flute player Fujiwara Yasumasa (958–1036) strolls home, casually playing his instrument as he makes his way. Unbeknownst to him, a thief prepares to strike him down, intent on stealing his warm clothes. It’s a tense moment, and Yoshitoshi’s dynamic composition sets the mood. According to the story, Yasumasa’s flute playing charms his would-be attacker, who reconsiders his actions. In an act of compassion, Yasumasa leads the man to his house and gives him a coat to wear.
The cloudy night sky was created with a printing technique called atenashi bokashi, which literally means “shading without definition.” There are two ways to achieve this effect. In one, a woodblock is used and the result would be universally equal for all impressions. This is not the case for this triptych, because every version that exists has unique clouds. So these were not printed, but hand applied through moistening the paper with water, then applying ink and spreading it with a horsehair brush over the wet surface.
Learn about other printing techniques in the More Stories.
This particular print is a very rare “deluxe” version released by the publisher after the original print proved to be immensely popular with the public. The differences are significant, if somewhat subtle: an extra row of grasses on the left and different cloud formations.
Fujiwara Yasumasa’s clothes tell us he’s an aristocrat. His loose, flowing robe is called a kariginu, a “hunting garment,” but aristocrats adopted it for everyday use because of how unrestrictive it felt.
The thief Hakamadare is poised to draw his sword to steal the flute player’s clothes. What follows is the pivotal moment when, according to one version of the story, Fujiwara stopped playing, looked down at his attacker, and calmly asked him what he was doing. The thief then fell to his knees and surrendered himself to the flute player.
Yoshitoshi used foreshortening, making Hakamadare’s right leg shorter so that it creates the illusion of jutting out toward the viewer, to make the thief’s pose more dynamic. The receding reeds create additional depth to the print by forming three distinct grounds: foreground, middle ground, and background.