This screen depicting the battle of Yashima (1185) is the left-hand half of a pair; the other screen would have depicted the battle of Ichinotani (1184). Both battles took place towards the end of the epic struggle between the Minamoto (Genji) and Taira (Heike) clans that eventually resulted in the downfall of the Taira, the triumph of the Minamoto and the assumption (1192) by Minamoto no Yoritomo of the title of shogun [generalissimo].
After the battle of Ichinotani (near present-day Kobe), when the Taira were heavily defeated by Yoritomo's heroic brother-in-law Yoshitsune, Taira no Munemori withdrew to Yashima, a small islet off Shikoku Island at the point nearest to the mainland of Honshu, where Munemori had built a temporary palace for the infant emperor Antoku. Alarmed by a Minamoto attack on the nearby town of Takamatsu, the Taira took to their boats, seen here with red banners, but before they had rowed out a few hundred feet Yoshitsune's troops, with white banners, appeared on the shore behind them. After a day of fierce fighting, the Taira retreated to Shido Bay [see 1 below].
These engagements, together with the climactic battle of Dannoura, were of particular significance in the late sixteenth and seventeeth centuries as Tokugawa Ieyasu, the unifier of Japan, began to construct an ideology emphasising the right of the samurai, and by extension the shogun, to rule over the country in the name of the emperor. Several pairs of screens showing the Ichinotani and Yashima battles have survived from the Keicho, Genna and Kan'ei eras (1596-1644), all of them with similar compositions [see 2 below]. The present version seems to be less closely based on earlier textual and pictorial accounts of the Yashima battle and is therefore thought to be somewhat later in date.
1 Helen Craig McCullough (trans. and ed.), The Tale of the Heike (Stanford, 1988), pp. 358-70.
2 Yamane Yuzo and others (ed.), Nihon byobu-e shusei [A collection of Japanese screen paintings], vol. 5, Yamato-ekei jinbutsu [Figurative painting in the Yamato-e tradition] (Tokyo, 1979), 39-40 (Tenshinji), 105-6 (British Museum), 107-8 (Saitama Prefectural Museum) and 110 (Freer Gallery of Art).