The battles of Ichinotani (on the right screen) and Yashima (on the left) took place at the end of the grueling five-year war between the Taira (Heike) and the Minamoto (Genji) clans. The Minamoto emerged victorious and their leader, Yoritomo, became the first shogun of the new military government. The battles were immortalized in the 13th-century historical novel Tale of the Heike. The tale held special relevance in the 17th century, when the concept of bushido, the way of the samurai, developed. Men recalled with romantic nostalgia their past fighting days and self-consciously articulated an ideal code of conduct.
The loyalty, courage and martial skills of the samurai are brought to life on this action-packed pair of screens. The right screen shows the battle in the spring of 1184 at Ichinotani (chapter 9). The Taira had taken up residence at the old Fukuhara capital, a port on the Inland Sea near modern Kobe. They established their stronghold at Ichinotani, at the base of some high cliffs to the north and selected Ikutanomori (shown on the first panel on the far right) as the entrance to their forward position on the east. They erected branch barricades made by felling great trees. "A cloudlike host of armored bowmen from Shikoku and Chinzei stood in ranks on archery platforms at the front of the stronghold, each of them reputed to be worth a thousand men." Red banners are those of the Taira, white those of the Minamoto.
Yoritomo's younger brother, Yoshitsune, is the star of the last years of the war, beginning with his daring dawn attack with three thousand riders on the Hiyodorigoe track behind the Ichinotani stronghold, as seen in the third panel from the right. First, he sent a few saddled horses down; some broke their legs and fell, others descended in safety, as shown at the base of the cliff. Having determined that horses could survive if the riders were careful, the Minamoto pulled up on a ledge, above a vertical drop of a hundred and fifty feet. A brave warrior named Sarara no Juro Yoshitsura came forward and thought nothing of dashing ahead.
The Taira are driven from their improvised fortress and escape into overloaded boats. At the bottom of the fifth panel, the boy emperor Antoku (1178-1185) is carried to the shore in a small imperial palanquin. His mother was a Taira, married to the emperor Takakura. (When the Taira were defeated in the naval engagement at Dannoura in 1185, she threw herself into the sea, holding the boy emperor in her arms. She survived but the boy emperor perished.)
After the Taira are routed from their fortress, a lone Taira warrior is seen splashing into the sea on a white horse, heading for a rescue vessel. Kumagai no Naozane of the Minamoto beckons him with a fan, calling him dishonorable and urging him to return and fight. This famous scene appears on the right screen, far left panel, right edge. Anyone familiar with the battle tale will know that the Taira warrior is Atsumori, a sixteen-year-old with lightly powdered face and blackened teeth--just a boy. He carries a brocade bag with flute tucked in at his waist. Naozane sheds tears after cutting off the boy's head. After their defeat in 1184, the Taira retreat to Yashima (today's Takamatsu) on the coast of the island of Shikoku in the Inland Sea. In the Battle of Yashima (chapter 11) in 1185, the Genji warrior Sanemoto bursts into the Yashima imperial palace and directs his men to set fires and burn the buildings (top center of left screen). A Minamoto squadron led by Yoshitsune arrives and forces the Taira out to sea, shown on the left screen. It is there that the sharpshooter Nasu no Yoichi, shown toward the bottom of the third panel from the right, takes up the Taira challenge to shoot a fan from a post mounted on the bow of one of their boats. The fan shatters in mid-air.
The Taira used long-handled rakes to try to pull the Minamoto from their horses by their neck guards. The Minamoto ward them off with swords and spears.