Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 (1725?–1770)
Shōki Carrying a Young Girl
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1765
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1991

Ōmori Morinaga, known more commonly as Ōmori Hikoshichi, was a warrior during the turbulent Nanbokuchō era (1336–1392), and he was immortalized as a protagonist in two chapters of the fictional epic Taiheiki (late 14th century). In the first chapter, a beautiful woman asks Hikoshichi for assistance in crossing a river, and so the warrior invites her to climb onto his back and begins to wade across, but before he can reach the other side of the river, he notices the woman’s unusual reflection in the water, realizes that she is a demon in disguise, and promptly slays her.

In this print by Harunobu, Hikoshichi has been replaced by Zhong Kui (Japanese: Shōki), the demon hunter of Chinese mythology. Several Japanese artists such as Nishimura Shigenobu (active c. early 18th century) depicted Shōki accompanied by a prostitute, and Harunobu himself published such an image in 1765. Though the way in which the woman’s obi sash is tied here does not indicate her status as a prostitute, given these precedents, along with the erotic symbolism of the umbrella that they share, it is safe to interpret her as a low-ranking employee of the Yoshiwara brothel district. If so, then the demon with which Shōki is about to struggle likely lurks within his own heart.

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