There’s a lot happening in this quiet, somber composition by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. A man sits cross-legged with his head bowed, eyes fixed on a sheet of calligraphy that lays in front of him. His hand grips an unsheathed knife. This man is the samurai Akashi Gidayū, general to Akechi Mitsuhide. Gidayū has just been savagly defeated in The Battle of Yamazaki, and though his army had been outnumbered 2 to 1, he has decided the only honorable path is the ritual suicide known as seppuku. But before driving his knife into his stomach according to tradition he has written a Jisei, or a “farewell poem to life".
Writing Jisei was a common practice among Japan’s literate classes, dating back to 686 CE. Jisei were typically in the tanka, or short poem style, and often described scenes in nature, the passing of seasons, or the inevitability of change. It is often difficult to translate these poems from the Japanese, since it was common to use words with multiple meanings to create layers of metaphor and symbolism.
Mitsuhide refused Gidayū’s request to commit seppuku, but the proud general secludes himself and prepares to end his life. In his last moments, he stares at his death poem, which reads:
As I am about to enter the ranks of those who disobey
ever more brightly shines
the moon of the summer night.
Reed Enger, "Akashi Gidayū’s Death Poem," in Obelisk Art History, Published October 14, 2019; last modified October 15, 2019, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/tsukioka-yoshitoshi/akashi-giday-s-death-poem/.