Kawanabe Kyōsai, Susano'o no Mikoto subduing the eight-headed serpent, a hanging scroll painting

Meiji era, around AD 1887

The triumph of Shintō over Buddhism?

In Shintō mythology Susano'o was the younger brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu. The legend goes that as a result of his unruly behaviour, Amaterasu hid herself in a cave, thus bringing darkness and winter to the world. Susano'o was banished from the High Celestial Plain to Izumo Province in western Japan. Here he killed the eight-headed and eight-tailed serpent (yamata no orochi) and rescued Princess Kushinada. Afterwards he found in the dragon's tail the sword which later became part of the regalia of the Japanese Imperial family.

This painting shows the god in a setting of storm-blown trees, sheer cliffs and raging waves. We see him balanced on the cliff edge, brandishing his sword. Only as we follow his gaze do we see the staring eyes of the giant serpent in the waters beneath.

The art historian Yamaguchi Seiichi has suggested that this painting is symbolic of the triumph of Shint&omacr over Buddhism at a time (the early Meiji era) when Buddhism was suffering severe persecution. However, Kyōsai (1831-89) is thought to have been a devout Buddhist.

A small preparatory drawing for this painting is in the collection of the Kawanabe Kyōsai Memorial Museum, Warabi City, Saitama Prefecture, Japan.

The signature reads 'Seisei Kyōsai' but the seal is too faint to be legible.

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More information


L. Smith, V. Harris and T. Clark, Japanese art: masterpieces in (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)

T. Clark, Demon of painting: the art of (London, The British Museum Press, 1993)

I. Hirayama and T. Kobayashi (eds.), Hizō Nihon bijutsu taikan-2, vol. 3 (Tokyo, Kodansha, 1993)


Length: 1001.000 mm
Width: 297.000 mm

Museum number

Asia JA JP ADD397 (1969.4-14.01)



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