Fujiwara no Kamatari, the founder of the Fujiwara family, held the highest courtly rank of Taishokkan which was created in 674 during the Reform of Taika. The family provided consorts for many Japanese emperors from the time of Emperor Mommu (683-707). Kamatari died in 669 at the age of 55 and as in the case of many great historical figures, legends were created around his life. The most popular one is his supposed adventure with a precious jewel, Muge hoju no tama, which is illustrated in this pair of screens.
Originally, the text for Kowaka Bukyoku titled Taishokkan, the theme has been adapted to handscrolls and screens including 3-volume handscrolls at the New York Public Library, 2-volume illustrated books of the British Library, 1-volume illustrated book at Japan's National Diet Library and a 6-panel screen of Sanada Homotsukan, Japan.
On these screens, the story unfolds somewhat clockwise, starting from the top righthand corner of the top screen with the Kasuga Shrine where Kamatari received a divine message to build the Kofukuji Temple. Meanwhile Kamatari's younger daughter, Kohakume, was to marry Emperor T'ai Tsung of China who sent a sumptuous boat to fetch her (the 4th panel of the top screen - the panels are counted from the right).
Her popularity as Empress attracted people to come and pay homage to her, some with gifts (bottom left corner of the bottom screen. The Emperor T'ai Tsung and the Empress are seen above).
The Empress decided to send her father the precious jewel, Muge hoju, to be placed as byakugo [urna] for the statue of Buddha which would be placed in the Kofukuji Temple. Together with various other treasures, she entrusted the jewel to General Manko but the Dragon King of the Sea came to hear of this and sent his myrmidons to waylay the General's ship at Chikura-ga-oki (top of the 3rd and the 4th panels of the bottom screen). General Manko and his men triumphed and the vessel proceeded to the Fusazaki Sea where the large trunk of a tree was seen floating. The trunk was hauled aboard and was found to contain a beautiful woman who, in fact, was sent by the Dragon King, and soon lured Manko to show her the jewel. She later vanished with the jewel into the sea (bottom and top scenes of the 1st and the 2nd panels of the bottom screen).
Manko, filled with remorse, reached Japan and met Kamatari who is seen here examining the list of treasures in his residence (lower part of the 1st and the 2nd panels of the top screen).
Kamatari left the capital in disguise in search for the lost jewel. He met a beautiful female diver at Fusazaki who subsequently bore him a son. Later he confided to her his true identity and sought her help in retrieving the jewel from the palace of the Dragon King. Kamatari manned a boat with musicians whose sweet music charmed the dragons (upper part of the 4th panel of the top screen). While they listened, the diver plunged into the sea armed with a sharp knife and succeeded in seizing the jewel. However she was pursued by a large dragon and split open her bosom to hide the jewel. She was dragged on board and lay dying beside Kamatari and his men with the jewel in her bosom. She was greatly mourned by Kamatari and their son (centre of the 5th and the 6th panels of the top screen).
Little is known about the artist Yamamoto Genkyu but according to Sakakibara Satoshi in the above mentioned book, five works including this pair of screens, have come to be recognised as by the artist. His dates are not known but surmising from the document kept at Myohoin in Kyoto, where one of his works is kept, he was called Yamamoto Masamitsu, commonly known as Gempei and used his religious name Genkyu after Kambun 9 (1669), which helps establishing the approximate date of the screens.
A picture album of the Thirty-Six Poets, similarly signed and sealed as the screens, is now in the New York Public Library Collection.