Boxwood netsuke of Raiko and the tsuchi-gumo, signed Masatoshi with kakihan
Length:1.4 inches (3.6 cm) Japan, mid-19th c. (late Edo period).

Along came a spider...

The spider in this case refers to the tsuchi-gumo ("earth spider"), a monstrous arachnid that plays a key role in several Japanese legends. The intended prey of the tsuchi-gumo portrayed in this netsuke is the hero Raiko, caught sleeping in the middle of the night. Raiko, the popular name of Minamoto no Yorimitsu, was a 10th century historical figure whose exploits are shrouded in myth. 

Raiko was known as the "demon killer". As the embodiment of evil and sorcery, the tsuchi-gumo is eventually slain by Raiko in this tale. But the symbolism of his victory implies much more than a battle against a fabulous beast. "Tsuchigumo" can also refer to thieves and marauders, whose great population in Raiko's era threatened the public safety and the future of the Japanese state.

The 19th century netsuke carver Masatoshi has captured here perfectly this tale in a netsuke that is both stimulating to the eye and pleasing to the hand. The composition presents the two figures merged, for a compact and rounded form. The artist communicates the tension of the upcoming action by marvelously developing the spider's features, while the nobleman Raiko appears peaceful and unaware of his predicament. The fine quality boxwood is beautifully carved, engraved, and stained (note the spider's spots) to enhance each of these aspects.

An unusual work such as this, rich in allusion and formed with fine craftsmanship and inspiration, represents the enjoyment of studying and collecting netsuke.