A woman swims frantically toward the distant shoreline, leaving a path of blood in her wake, as the King of the Dragons and an army of his finned minions pursue her. This famous scene originates from a variation on an ancient Chinese myth that was hugely popular in Japan during the Edo period, especially among ukiyo-e artists, like Kuniyoshi, who did numerous pieces based on the narrative, the title of which translates to “Princess Jewel Taker.” Their prints eventually gave way to countless Irezumi iterations of the climatic ending of Tamatori's tale, as seen in Tosikazu Nakamura’s back-piece.
The Emperor of the Tang Dynasty sent his wife three treasures to soothe her grief after her father passed away, one of which — a magical pearl — was stolen by the King of the Dragons, Ryūjin. The Emperor’s son vowed to recover the precious object and went searching for the dragon’s lair. On his long journey, he met a pearl diver named Ama, fell in love, and married her, hence the name Princess Tamatori. Out of her love for him, she decided to reclaim the artifact, swimming to the underwater palace of Ryūgū-jō. Singing the fearsome creatures of the deep to sleep, Tamatori recovered the pearl and, cutting open her breast, hid it inside, the clouds of blood veiling her escape. Barely making it to shore, she died in her lover’s arms.
Nakamura’s composition features all of the key components of Tamatori’s story. The center of his tattoo shows her struggling through the waves, the blade with which she cut open her breast still in hand as she conceals the pearl next to her heart. Ryūjin’s serpentine body swirls behind her, dead-set on his object of desires, providing the back-piece with a sense of impending danger. Falling maple leaves swirl around the two central figures, foreshadowing her death. All in all, the back-piece captures the spirit of the legend perfectly, giving shape to the themes of love and self-sacrifice that make it such an enduring legend.
To see more Irezumi based on the Japanese folklore, make sure to follow Nakamura on Instagram. If you’d like your own back-piece of Tamatori stealing the pearl, consider having this master of the style design it for you. He can be reached via his website.
This deep dive into Japanese folklore was Decoding the Human Canvas, our series where we look at the history and meaning behind of large-scale body art. If you enjoyed learning about Princess Tamatori, check out some of our previous posts about Saint George and the Dragon, Raijin and Fujin, The Fall of the Angels, Leda and the Swan, and Christ’s crucifixion.