fig. 2 <br/>
Katsukawa Shuncho <br/>
Edo (Tokyo) fl. c.1780–1795 <br/>
<em>Representation (parody) of ‘The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove’</em> c.1788<br/>
colour woodblock on paper<br/>
39.2 x 25.7 cm (right panel of a diptych)<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased from Trustees Funds, 1993 (AS32-1993)<br/>

Japanese woodblock prints: a mass medium


After a century of civil wars, the Tokugawa shoguns (military rulers) of the Edo period (1615–1868) unified Japan and brought about more than 250 years of peace and prosperity. The Tokugawa adopted the Chinese ethical philosophy of neo-Confucianism, which provided them with the means of maintaining a stable social order through its emphasis on duty, obedience and a highly structured social hierarchy. To guarantee the loyalty of the feudal lords (daimyo), the shoguns required that they spend every alternate year (or half-year) in Edo (now Tokyo), the capital. The families of the daimyo were forced to reside permanently in the capital, thus serving as hostages against any possible revolts staged in the feudal domains. This enforced ‘alternate attendance’ brought about a rapid increase in population and a greater demand for material goods in the capital. By the late eighteenth century, Edo had become the largest city in the world, with a population of approximately one million. 

Commercial prosperity led to the growth of a new urban culture and the emergence of a wealthy and prosperous merchant class (merchants had the lowest status in Tokugawa society, the social classes of which were ranked in the following order of importance: samurai-warrior, farmer, artisan, merchant). The merchants achieved financial success by catering to the needs of the new urban society and by acting as creditors to the feudal lords, the samurai, and even the government itself. The cost of city life and of the travels made necessary by ‘alternate attendance’ in Edo put a financial strain on the feudal lords and their vassals. 

The rich merchants of the Edo period became the patrons of the artists, actors and courtesans who belonged to the newly emerged popular ‘chonin-culture’ of Edo and Osaka, which was known as ukiyo, the ‘floating (fleeting) world’. (Merchants and artisans are known collectively as chonin, literally ‘townspeople’.) Originally, ukiyo was a term used by Buddhists to convey the idea of the transient nature of existence. In the Edo period, however, the term was given a slightly less reverent construction, being used to refer to the attitude – prevalent at the time – of responding to the transitory nature of existence by living for the moment. The term ‘floating world’ referred in particular to life in the entertainment districts that housed the pleasure quarters and the popular kabuki theatre, but the word also carried connotations of being modern, affluent, chic and fashionable. Although they were officially social outcasts, the kabuki actors and courtesans, admired for their beauty and splendid clothes, were the trend-setters of society. 

Their widespread influence in defining fashion and style was largely due to the publishing industry, which was flourishing in Japan by the end of the seventeenth century; the newly emerging print medium had adopted the glamorous entertainers of the floating world as its most popular subjects. The general public found the kabuki actors and high-class courtesans extremely fascinating, though somewhat disreputable, and collected memorabilia on them. The most popular memento available was the colour woodblock print. 

At first, ‘pictures of the floating world’ (ukiyo-e) were paintings in the form of scrolls and screens. The customers for these paintings were the newly rich townspeople and the idle peacetime samurai. Woodblock prints and illustrated books were later produced to meet the ever-increasing popular demand for ukiyo-e. Entrepreneurial publishers commissioned designs from artists, supervised the carvers and printers, and finally sold the finished prints to the public. Print runs depended on the demand of the market: a print could be issued in the thousands should it prove to be popular, or withdrawn from production if it failed to sell. The common people could afford to buy the woodblock prints, which were relatively inexpensive. Like present-day posters, the colourful prints were pinned up as decorations; when they were first produced, they were not intended as rare works to be kept for ever. 

Traditionally, Japanese art had been created for the ruling classes. The woodblock prints of the Edo period emerged as a new kind of art that appealed to the common people, and were mass-produced for commercial consumption. Traditional art was mostly inspired by nature and imbued with spirituality. The woodblocks tended to be entertaining, dealing with the many and varied aspects of human life as reflected in the experiences of the entertainers of the floating world: romance, fantasies and sensational human affairs, as well as the darker sides of society, such as scandals, suicides, murders, conflicts and tragedies. (It has also been estimated that erotic subjects and images of beautiful women (bijin-ga) comprised the greater part of the production of the ukiyo prints of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.) Stylistically, the prints were dynamic, bright in colour and bold in design, in contrast to the subtle and contemplative art of the upper class. The prints were also expressive, imaginative, and inventive in the way in which they told a story. The printmakers experimented with innovative artistic devices based on observation; these included receding perspective, the effects of illumination, silhouette, and reflections in water, and atmospheric effects like mist, rain and snow. The artists also explored the effects of the different times of the day, with a special interest in evening and night scenes. 

In 1618, in an attempt to regulate prostitution, the Japanese government decided to concentrate the licensed quarters within a single district in each major city. The most famous of these pleasure districts was that in Edo, an area known as the Yoshiwara. Established on the north-eastern outskirts of Edo after the great fire of 1657, the Yoshiwara was a walled city surrounded by a moat. Half a mile square, it had a long, broad central thoroughfare planted with cherry trees. This nightless city consisted of brothels, tea-houses and restaurants. Visitors were required to deposit their swords at the gate, where basket hats could be acquired by those wishing to remain anonymous. Within the walls of the Yoshiwara, rigid class distinctions diminished; money and style were paramount. Samurai and townsmen could mingle in the tea-houses, where poets, writers, artists and thinkers could be found chatting with other pleasure-seekers. 

As entertainers of the pleasure quarters, courtesans were educated and cultivated. Although held in bondage, they had freedom of choice as to where they wished to bestow their favours. They were admired for their beauty, aesthetic sensitivity, witty conversation and sophisticated refinement. Introduced to the profession at an early age, young girls, usually from poor peasant families, would initially serve an ‘apprenticeship’ as attendants to older courtesans in the brothels. The earnings of the young girls were kept by the brothel owners and applied against money given to the families that had sold their daughters into prostitution. The girls were not permitted to leave the licensed districts, except for special occasions. 

Generally, only high-ranking courtesans were depicted in bijin-ga. They were distinguished by their colourful kimonos, with the sash (obi) tied at the front, and by their elaborate combs and hairpins. 

In the invented fantasy world of the Yoshiwara, the townsmen (chonin) and merchants could fulfil their desires for romance and adventure, which they were unlikely to encounter in daily life as romance was ruled out by pre-arranged marriage. (Travelling overseas was also forbidden, and a decree of 1633, revised in 1635, imposed a death penalty on anyone who travelled outside Japan.) In the Yoshiwara, the merchants, to whom the ruling class allowed little dignity or freedom of expression, could act out fantasies of influence and power. Here, they could display their wealth freely – although they were often the target of the shoguns’ sumptuary laws, which attempted to regulate public displays of wealth including houses, weddings, entertainment and even clothing. In the Yoshiwara the merchants also had access to courtesans who, masquerading as high-class ladies, had their dark skins painted white and rustic dialects replaced by the polite language of Kyoto, the capital of the imperial court. A courtesan of the highest rank was addressed by her maids in the language of formal deference accorded a daimyo’s wife by her ladies-in-waiting. 

fig. 1 <br/>
Suzuki Harunobu <br/>
Edo (Tokyo) 1724&ndash;1770 <br/>
<em>A courtesan writing a love letter</em> <br/>
colour woodblock on paper<br/>
66.1 x 12.4 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Felton Bequest, 1909 (392-2)<br/>

In A courtesan writing a love letter by Suzuki Harunobu, a young courtesan, of the type of idealised beauty for which the artist was famous, is seen composing a love letter in a room in the licensed quarter (fig. 1). Two men, possibly potential customers, are watching her through the open-lattice window. This cage-like room was a traditional way of displaying courtesans to clients. One of the men, probably a samurai, holds a fan over his face and has a scarf over his head, apparently attempting to conceal his identity from passers-by. Although samurai were discouraged from visiting the pleasure quarters, they too were attracted to the glamour of the Yoshiwara. 

The pleasures of the licensed district were not solely erotic. The exchange of letters between courtesans and their customers was an important part of the courting game. Fine handwriting, a sign of aesthetic refinement, would greatly enhance the desirability of a courtesan. In The Great Mirror of the Art of Love, the writer Fujimoto Kizan (1626–1702), a connoisseur of the pleasure quarters, declared: ‘It is unfortunate for anyone not to be able to write, but for a courtesan it is a disaster. They say that playing the shamisen [a three-stringed musical instrument] is the most important of the artistic accomplishments of a courtesan, but in fact writing comes first, and the shamisen only afterwards’. 

Courtesans’ dress and hairstyles were featured in many illustrated books and published images of the latest fashion trends, which were widely circulated and eagerly copied. In Representation (parody) of ‘The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove’, c.1788, the right panel of a diptych by Katsukawa Shuncho, courtesans in the latest fashions are shown in a bamboo grove (fig. 2). To meet the public interest in clothing and ornament, great originality and skilful printing have been applied to the rendering of the fabric and design of the costumes. With hardly any distinctions in their facial features, the beautiful women are paraded as elegant models in what might be viewed as a fashion plate of the latest trends. This print is extremely rare in that there has been no fading of its exquisite colours. 

To give the picture a humorous twist, Shuncho has made use of a common pictorial device of the Edo period, that of mitate-e (parody pictures). The courtesans are portrayed in a parodic representation of ‘The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove’, a theme from Chinese classical literature. In third-century China, a group of seven eccentric scholars were reputed to have met frequently in a bamboo grove to drink wine and engage in philosophical conversation. In Shuncho’s panel, four beautiful women in a bamboo grove represent four of the seven sages. The young girl attendant plays the role of what would have been a boy attendant to the scholars. Such modern-dress parodies of famous anecdotes would have been familiar to the well-educated members of Edo society. 

Another aspect of life in the Yoshiwara is depicted in Geisha playing kitsune ken, c.1818, by Kikugawa Eizan (fig. 3). In this print, three geisha, female entertainers commonly hired to provide entertainment at parties and gatherings, are seated outside a restaurant in which a lively party is in progress. They are playing kitsune ken, a game played with the hands in which the loser has to take a drink of sake (rice wine) as a forfeit. The artist has ingeniously created a picture within a picture by showing the animated party in silhouette behind the paper sliding-doors. Entertainment is provided by a jester dancing with a fan and a geisha playing a shamisen. The use of the silhouette was a new pictorial device, first introduced in ukiyo paintings and prints. 

fig. 3 <br/>
Kikugawa Eizan <br/>
Edo (Tokyo) 1787&ndash;1867<br/>
<em>Geisha playing kitsune ken</em> c.1818<br/>
colour woodblock on paper<br/>
each panel 38.0 x 25.0 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Felton Bequest, 1909 (405.a-c-2)<br/>
fig. 4 <br/>
Kitagawa Utamaro <br/>
Edo (Tokyo) 1754&ndash;1806<br/>
<em>Gompachi and Komurasaki</em> c.1790<br/>
colour woodblock on paper<br/>
61.2 x 14.4 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Felton Bequest, 1909 (410-2)<br/>

A popular story of love between a dispossessed samurai and a courtesan is portrayed by Kitagawa Utamaro in Gompachi and Komurasaki, c.1790 (fig. 4). The tragic tale of these seventeenth-century lovers has had a constant fascination for the Japanese. Gompachi is the handsome, courageous scoundrel and Komurasaki the beautiful courtesan whom he loves passionately and devotedly, against all logic. Gompachi was born into the samurai class but became dispossessed after he accidentally killed a fellow clansman in a quarrel. He was forced to flee, and in an inn met the young Komurasaki, who had been kidnapped from her wealthy parents by bandits. Gompachi saved her from the kidnappers and returned her to her family. Later, in Edo, he unexpectedly met Komurasaki working as a courtesan in the pleasure quarter of the Yoshiwara. Her parents had fallen into poverty and she had been obliged to sell herself to a brothel. Gompachi vowed to buy her freedom, but resorted to robbery and murder to raise the money needed to pay the ransom. He was caught and executed. Hearing of his death, Komurasaki died by her own dagger, upon his grave. 

In his narrow-format print, Utamaro has captured the emotional psychological link between the lovers by showing the young samurai hovering protectively over the adoring courtesan. On her robes are a pair of mandarin ducks, symbols of conjugal love, and cherry blossoms, symbols of fragility and transience. 

As this story illustrates, courtesans were commonly portrayed in a sympathetic light in ukiyo-e: Komurasaki has fulfilled the Confucian duty of filial piety by sacrificing herself to save her parents from debt and poverty. 

This popular story is taken up again by Utagawa Kunisada in Shirai Gompachi, 1860 (fig. 5), which depicts a scene from the kabuki play A Lover’s Nightmare in the Yoshiwara. In the kabuki version of the tragedy, Gompachi escapes the police by crossing the Sumida River. Seeing a second band of police on the opposite bank, he commits suicide in the middle of the river. The actor depicted in the print has assumed a fixed pose and crossed his eyes to express the intense drama of this climactic moment. The mie (meaning the striking of a pose) is one of the most remarkable features of kabuki theatre, which is basically a series of striking climactic images. These are the moments the audience applauds with shouts and praise, and are the high points recorded in the prints. 

fig. 5 <br/>
Utagawa Kunisada <br/>
Edo (Tokyo) 1786&ndash;1864<br/>
<em>Shirai Gompachi</em> 1860<br/>
colour woodblock on paper<br/>
38.0 x 25.0 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of Coles Myer Ltd, Governor, 1993 (AS27-1993)<br/>
Kunisada has signed this work with the name of his teacher Toyokuni (1769&ndash;1825), a name Kunisada adopted in 1844.<br/>

‘Themes of blood’, such as suicides and murders, grew increasingly common on the kabuki stage in the period preceding the civil wars that led to the dissolution of the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration of power to the Emperor in 1868. In Kunisada’s print, the gruesome beauty of blood is explored, its impact being heightened by the fine, hidden, black-on-black key-pattern printed on Gompachi’s garment. 

Kabuki, literally ‘extraordinary thing’, with connotations of the degenerate or the unorthodox, emerged as a popular theatre of Japan in the early seventeenth century. The source of the new theatre was the provocative dancing of the shrine priestess Okuni, and her female dancers. Kabuki was at first held in disdain by the samurai and noble classes, who preferred the classical Noh drama as the appropriate expression of upper-class elegance and good taste. While the actor of the Noh drama held samurai status, the kabuki actor was a social outcast. Patronised by the newly affluent merchant class, however, the kabuki theatre quickly rose in popularity. With its sensuous and extravagant stagings of convoluted stories of romance, subterfuge, heroism and tragedy, it had a mass appeal that cut across all class barriers. By the second half of the eighteenth century, kabuki was not only the most popular form of entertainment, but it was also the centre of a good part of the literary and intellectual life of the cities. 

‘Actor prints’ served both to advertise and to commemorate kabuki performances. The most popular actors had superstar status and attracted large, enthusiastic fan clubs. The prints would be issued to coincide with a performance and would be purchased by the fans. The kabuki fan was a serious connoisseur, not only of the theatre but of the actor prints as well. Although many of these prints were inexpensive, de luxe prints employing expensive inks and extravagant embellishments were produced to satisfy the most discriminating clients. 

Kabuki plays dealt with both historical and contemporary domestic themes. Domestic plays dealt with the common people of the day – shopkeepers, artisans, prostitutes, farmers. The most popular domestic plays were those set in the houses of assignation in the pleasure district (for example, A Lover’s Nightmare in the Yoshiwara, depicted in Kunisada’s Shirai Gompachi). People who could not afford to go to the pleasure quarters could experience them vicariously through a kabuki play. The glamorous and mysterious life of the Yoshiwara, a life that only a rich man could afford, was thus revealed to the theatre-goer. 

The latest scandals, particularly those in the licensed quarters of the Yoshiwara, always fascinated Edo audiences and provided raw material for the playwrights of the kabuki theatre and the makers of ukiyo-e prints. Each theatre tried to scoop the others by being the first to stage a play concerning a recent suicide or scandal. 

A double murder that had taken place in the pleasure quarters was re-enacted in the play The Famous Sword ‘Kagotsurube’ Sobers up in the Pleasure Quarters and recorded in the print The actor Ichikawa Sadanji I as Sano Jirozaemon, 1888, by Toyohara Kunichika (fig. 6). 

fig. 6 <br/>
Toyohara Kunichika <br/>
Edo (Tokyo) 1835&ndash;1900<br/>
<em>The actor Ichikawa Sadanji I as Sano Jirozaemon</em> 1888<br/>
colour woodblock on paper<br/>
each panel 38.0 x 25.0 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of Coles Myer Ltd, Governor, 1993 (AS28.a-c-1993)<br/>

Sano Jirozaemon, a farmer, was the innocent victim of a curse, which left him disfigured with smallpox. He learned swordsmanship and was bequeathed a magic sword, which would bring him good fortune as long as it was never unsheathed. Once unsheathed, it had to draw blood. Jirozaemon became a wealthy businessman, who on a visit to the pleasure quarter fell madly in love with the courtesan Yatsuhashi. She initially responded to his advances but later rejected him in favour of a former lover. Overcome with grief and shame, Jirozaemon visited Yatsuhashi with his sword and killed her. He escaped onto the rooftop and was at first pursued by firemen and then by the police. Yatsuhashi’s former lover joined the pursuit and was also killed by Jirozaemon. Finally revenged, Jirozaemon allowed himself to be captured by the police. 

This tragic tale was first staged in the kabuki theatre in 1888. Kunichika’s print depicts the dramatic night scene, with the actor playing Jirozaemon battling with the firemen on top of the roof. It is interesting that the hero of this story is not a member of the samurai class, but rather a farmer who became a merchant. 

In kabuki theatre, stories of courtesans were also interwoven with fantasy and the supernatural. Horror dramas of ghost stories and tales of cruelty were performed during the hot summer months, as it was believed that these plays would make one feel cooler because they sent chills up the spine. 

In the print Theatrical scene: the cat-spectre in the old temple, c.1847, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, which shows a scene from the play The Last Story of the Actor Onoe Kikugoro (originally known as ‘Solitary Journey in the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido’), the curtains are parted to reveal a gigantic cat-demon looming behind the main characters (fig. 7). Japan has many legends of cat sorcery in which the cat-demon is described as a huge creature possessing the supernatural power to assume human form and bewitch people. In Kuniyoshi’s print, the cat is linked by a curving spirit trail to the apparition, indicated by the spirit fire, in the right panel. Here, the cat-demon has manifested itself as an old woman, who is appearing with the ghost of the courtesan Usugumo. Seated in the centre panel is the samurai Inabanosuke. In the left panel is Teranishi Kanshi, a priest-turned-thief. 

fig. 7 <br/>
Utagawa Kuniyoshi<br/>
Edo (Tokyo) 1797-1861<br/>
<em>Theatrical scene: the cat-spectre in the old temple</em> c.1847<br/>
colour woodblock on paper<br/>
each panel 37.0 x 25.0 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased from Trustees Funds, 1993 (AS12.a-c-1993)<br/>

The print illustrated here follows the original version of the story, in which the disguised samurai Inabanosuke, with his wife and child, spent the night in an old temple inhabited by the spirit of a cat-demon. The cat-demon was once the mother of the courtesan Usugumo, who was previously the lover of the samurai. The courtesan, who had been cursed by Inabanosuke’s jealous wife, was murdered while on her way to see her mother in prison; the murderer wanted to drink her blood as a cure for an illness. The mother later died and became the cat-spirit. In the temple, the ghost of the courtesan killed the samurai’s wife. On that same night, the renegade priest also arrived at the temple. He recognised the samurai and attempted to capture him. Thanks to a charm given to him by a saint, the samurai was able to save himself. In the present print, the charm held by the samurai has been replaced by a wish of good luck for the success of the play, indicating that the print was probably published as an advertisement before the play went to stage. In the print the main characters are arranged like a tableau on stage, with several scenes from the play unfolding simultaneously. 

In the production depicted in this print, Onoe Kikugoro III played the roles of both the courtesan and her mother. Although kabuki was developed from the dancing of the priestess Okuni, women were banished from the kabuki stage, on moral grounds, by the government in 1629. It then became a convention for female roles to be played by male actors, who were called the onnagata. Rather than imitating real women, the onnagata expressed the essence of femininity in a stylised manner of acting that elevated kabuki performance from burlesque to a serious art form. Onnagata became fashion trend-setters, influencing even the courtesans of the pleasure quarters. 

Fantasy is combined with humour in The eight canine heroes of the house of Satomi, c.1851–53, by Kunisada (fig. 8). It is based on a kabuki play that was inspired by a novel written by Takizawa Bakin (1767–1848) and published in parts between 1814 and 1841. 

fig. 8 <br/>
Utagawa Kunisada <br/>
<em>The eight canine heroes of the house of Satomi</em> c.1851&ndash;53<br/>
colour woodblock on paper<br/>
each panel 38.0 x 25.0 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased, 1967 (3679A-4)<br/>
Kunisada has signed this work with the name of his teacher Toyokuni (1769&ndash;1825), a name Kunisada adopted in 1844.<br/>

The story tells of the Lord of Satomi, who vowed to give his daughter Princess Fuse in marriage to whoever brought him the head of his enemy. In the event, the head was brought by the Lord’s own dog, who claimed the reward. The satire in this most inventive, ridiculously amusing story seems to be aimed at the samurai class. 

In the centre panel of Kunisada’s print the magic spirit dog, whose supernatural nature is indicated by the spirit flame in the upper right corner, is shown as a spectre taking on human form. He is holding onto the robe of the Princess, who appears to be trying to get away. In the left panel, the Lord of Satomi is standing behind his retainer. 

During the Tempo Reforms of 1842, the government strictly enforced laws for the control of actors, confining them to their assigned quarters. When they did go out of their quarters, they were required to hide their faces by wearing woven hats made of sedge grass, the same type of hat worn by outcasts and by criminals under arrest. Ukiyo actor and courtesan prints were banned at this time. In theatrical prints this restriction was soon circumvented in a variety of ingenious ways. From 1842 to 1862, actors’ names no longer appeared on the prints. In Shirai Gompachi, The cat-spectre in the old temple, and The eight canine heroes of the house of Satomi, for example, the names of the characters in the story – but not those of the actors who portrayed them – are inscribed in the cartouche next to the figures. Each of these prints carries censorship seals indicating government approval. From 1790 onwards a formal system of censorship had been in place, and until 1874 all prints, except those in private publications, carried a seal of government approbation. 

In the early years of ukiyo-e, the subjects of the prints, as we have seen, were the famous beauties of the licensed quarters and the actors of the kabuki theatre. The range of subject matter was later extended to include landscapes of famous views, themes from history and legend, and tales of warriors and the supernatural. 

Landscape prints first came into vogue in the 1820s, with the lifting of travel restrictions so that it became easier to obtain permits to travel within Japan. This led to a demand for mementoes of journeys, and landscape prints became a novelty for travellers and armchair travellers. The banning of actor and courtesan prints from 1842 also had an impact on the popular demand for travel prints. 

The enjoyment of nature by the urban middle class is recorded in Yashima Gakutei’s series of six prints depicting the famous views of Mt Tempo. Mt Tempo was an island amusement park that had been created from the silt dredged from the tributaries of the Aji River. It was landscaped with pavilions, bridges, tea-houses and a lighthouse. 

Pleasure-boats were especially popular in Osaka, a city of many rivers and canals. In Gakutei’s Moonlit night at Suehiro (Fan) Bridge, c.1834, a covered pleasure-boat is being poled under the bridge known as ‘Fan Bridge’ (fig. 9). The full moon rises over the iris beds on the banks of the river. A solitary figure pauses on the bridge to admire the moon. This romantic setting is very much staged, as though in a theatre. The bridge is seen from underneath, suggesting a ‘viewpoint’ inside the landscape itself. As in a snapshot, part of the boat is cropped by the border of the print. 

fig. 9 <br/>
Yashima Gakutei <br/>
Osaka c.1786&ndash;1868<br/>
<em>Moonlit night at Suehiro (Fan) Bridge</em>, from the series <em>Famous places of Osaka: a look at the scenic spots of &Mu;t Tempo</em> c.1834<br/>
colour woodblock on paper<br/>
25.0 x 36.6 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Felton Bequest, 1909 (464-2)<br/>

The beach of Sagami Bay, a famous tourist spot, is depicted in Seven mile beach, province of Sagami by Utagawa Hiroshige (fig. 10). In the distance in the left and middle panels is the island of Endoshima, with snow-capped Mt Fuji on the horizon in the middle panel. The shrine to Benten, goddess of wealth and good fortune, is located on the island, which is still a popular pilgrimage destination. Naked children are playing and swimming in the waves. On the beach are groups of tourists and pilgrims. Their gaze is directed towards a woman holding a parasol and riding on an ox, led by a young boy. She possibly represents the goddess Benten, appearing as though in a vision. (This scene could also be a parody of two popular kabuki plays of the time, in which the main character rides an ox.) 

fig. 10 <br/>
Utagawa Hiroshige <br/>
Edo (Tokyo) 1797&ndash;1858<br/>
<em>Seven mile beach, province of Sagami</em><br/>
colour woodblock on paper<br/>
each panel 36.2 x 25.0 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Felton Bequest, 1910 (529.a-c-2)<br/>

To circumvent the sumptuary laws of the Tempo Reforms of 1842 that banned actor and courtesan prints, artists also took their subjects from the historical and mythical pasts and produced warrior prints, which held great fascination for the general populace. These history prints are just as dramatic and theatrical as the kabuki theatre prints. 

fig. 11 <br/>
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi <br/>
Edo (Tokyo) 1839&ndash;1892<br/>
<em>Taira no Kiyomori stopping the descent of the sun</em>, from the series <em>A mirror of famous generals of Japan</em> c.1876<br/>
colour woodblock on paper<br/>
35.0 x 23.0 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased from Trustees Funds, 1992 (AS15-1992)<br/>

A popular legend associated with magic is exploited in Taira no Kiyomori stopping the descent of the sun, c.1876, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (fig. 11). The magical episode illustrated here has all the extravagance and drama of the kabuki theatre. Taira (Sokoku) no Kiyomori (1118–1181) was born into the imperial Taira clan. He became governor of Iga province and, through political and military successes, the virtual master of Japan by 1167. According to legend, Kiyomori had promised to complete the building of a shrine in Miyajima by a specific day. Although a multitude of craftsmen worked ceaselessly, the sun began to set before the work was finished. Kiyomori climbed to the roof and kept urging back the sun with his fan until the shrine was completed. The strong, vibrant colours of the sumptuous robes, the brilliant sky and the reflections in water in Yoshitoshi’s print are achieved by means of chemical aniline dyes imported from the West. These new colours are in contrast to the subtle vegetable and mineral colours used in works such as Shuncho’s Representation (parody) of ‘The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove’ (fig. 2). 

A related historical legend is depicted in Kumasaka’s night attack on Ushiwaka-Maru at the Akasaka Post-station in Mino province, 1860, by Utagawa Yoshitora (fig. 12). The triptych illustrates an episode from the life of the popular hero Yoshitsune (1159–1189), who was known in his youth as ‘Ushiwaka’ (Young Ox). In the twelfth century, Japan was plunged into civil wars in which the two most powerful factions were the Taira (Heike) and the Minamoto (Genji) clans. While Ushiwaka was still a child, his family, the Minamoto clan, were defeated by the Taira clan. In an uncommon act of mercy, Kiyomori, leader of the Taira, spared the lives of the Minamoto children, who later brought about the downfall of the Taira. Ushiwaka, the youngest of the children, was sent to a temple in the mountains, where, as legend has it, he was taught the martial arts in the forest at night by long-nosed goblins called tengu. In 1174 Ushiwaka escaped from the temple and joined the armed caravan of a gold merchant on his way to northern Japan. On the journey, the caravan was attacked by a group of bandits led by Kumasaka Chohan, a giant lay priest. In the centre panel of Yoshitora’s print, the young Ushiwaka is represented battling with the bandits. A triangular beam of light cuts across the entire triptych, illuminating the main characters of the encounter with a polychrome effect that contrasts with the duo-toned pinks and greys of the night scene. As in a comic strip, many smaller episodes are presented like little vignettes in a complex and intricate composition. 

fig. 12 <br/>
Utagawa Yoshitora <br/>
Edo (Tokyo) fl. c.1850&ndash;1880<br/>
<em>Kumasaka&rsquo;s night attack on Ushiwaka-Maru at the Akasaka Post-station in Mino province</em> 1860<br/>
colour woodblock on paper<br/>
each panel 38.0 x 26.0 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Purchased from Trustees Funds, 1992 (AS12.a-c-1992)<br/>
fig. 13 <br/>
Ichieisai Yoshitzuya <br/>
Edo (Tokyo) 1822&ndash;1866 <br/>
<em>The death of Kusunoki Masatsura</em> <br/>
colour woodblock on paper<br/>
each panel 36.0 x 24.0 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased from Trustees Funds, 1993 (AS9.a-c-1992)<br/>

A battle scene of fighting to the bitter end is portrayed in The death of Kusunoki Masatsura (fig. 13) by Ichieisai Yoshitzuya. Kusunoki Masatsura was a famous warrior who defended the imperial line against the Ashikaga rebels in the early fourteenth century. After some preliminary successes, Masatsura found himself surrounded by overwhelming numbers of the enemy. At the battle of Shijo-nawate in the province of Kawachi in 1348, the entire Kusunoki force was killed. In Yoshitzuya’s print, Kusunoki Masatsura (in the centre panel) and two of his retainers are shown desperately battling a rain of arrows. Across the picture is a trail of blood. The expressive faces of the warriors, determined to fight to the bitter end, are like death-masks. It is not surprising that the print resembles a tattoo in the flatness of the design and the complexity of the colour, as the artist specialised both in pictures of warriors and in designs for tattooing. 

In addition to being subject to the restrictions ushered in by the Tempo Reforms, artists were forbidden by the Tokugawa government from making any reference to the shogunate or to current events. Comments on contemporary events and personalities were therefore disguised by being placed in the context of the past. But after the restoration of the Emperor in 1868 it was permitted to report on contemporary events, as is shown in The death of the rebel leaders in the Battle of the Kumamoto Uprising, 1876, by Yoshitoshi (fig. 14). This print has the immediacy of newspaper reportage. It illustrates an uprising by a group of discontented samurai who were dispossessed as a result of the reunification and modernisation of Japan after the downfall of the Shogun and the restoration of the Emperor in 1868. The revolt was suppressed by imperial forces and the rebel leaders died in battle. Yoshitoshi has adapted and transformed Western realism and the technique of foreshortening into a unique style of Japanese art. This print also shows the effective use of the newly imported aniline dyes. 

fig. 14 <br/>
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi <br/>
Edo (Tokyo) 1839&ndash;1892 <br/>
<em>The death of the rebel leaders in the Battle of the Kumamoto Uprising</em>, from the series <em>A short history of the Meiji period: a record of events</em> 1876<br/>
colour woodblock on paper <br/>
each panel 36.7 x 25.0 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased from Trustees Funds, 1992 (AS16.a-c-1992)<br/>

Not unlike present-day mass media publications, ukiyo woodblock prints were a form of escapism and diversion for their audiences. The subject matter they addressed – particularly the sensational aspects of popular and urban culture – stimulated the public imagination, creating eager audiences and widespread demand. Like today’s posters, comic books, fan magazines and the popular press, the affordable prints of the floating world brought into the homes of urban Japanese the glamour and excitement of a way of life that they could never hope to experience for themselves. 

Yet the striking prints of the floating world also transcend the immediate social and historical context in which they were created. Iconic images from a particular moment in time, they have become for subsequent generations synonymous with the floating world they denote.

Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator of Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1994).


The narrative in Japanese prints should always be read from right to left. 



The author would like to acknowledge the following: Mr James Mollison, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, for his support and encouragement of the Gallery’s acquisition program in Japanese prints; Ms Eiko Kondo, specialist in Japanese prints and literature, for her assistance with the iconography of Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s print The cat-spectre in the old temple; Mr Geoffrey Burke for assisting in the research for and writing of this article; and Ms Dana Rowan, editor, for her clarification of and literary improvements to the text. 


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Gunji, M. The Kabuki Guide. Trans. C. Holmes. Tokyo, 1987. 

Guth, C. Asobi: Play in the Arts of Japan. Exh. cat. Katonah Museum of Art, New York, 1992. 

Halford, A. S., & Halford, G. M. The Kabuki Handbook. Rutland, Vermont, 1956. 

Illing, R. The Art of Japanese Prints. London, 1980. 

Joly, H. L. Legend in Japanese Art: A Description of Historical Episodes, Legendary Characters, Folk-Lore Myths, Religious Symbolism (1908). Rutland, Vermont, 1967. 

Kennedy, A. Japanese Costume, History and Tradition. Paris, 1990. 

Keyes, R. S. Hirosada: Osaka Printmaker. Exh. cat. University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach, 1984. 

Lane, R. Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print. New York, 1978. 

Leiter, S. L. Kabuki Encyclopedia: An English-Language Adaptation of Kabuki Jiten. Westport, Connecticut, 1979. 

Newland, Α., & Uhlenbeck, C. (eds). Ukiyo-e To Shin Hanga: The Art of Japanese Woodblock Prints. USA, 1990. 

Robinson, B. W. Kuniyoshi. London, 1961. 

Schwaab, D.J. Osaka Prints. London, 1989. 

Shively, D. H. ‘The Social Environment of Tokugawa Kabuki’. In J. R. Brandon, D. H. Shively & W. P. Malm, Studies in Kabuki: Its Acting, Music, and Historical Context. Honolulu, 1987, pp. 1-61. 

Thompson, S. E., & Harootunian, H. D. Undercurrents in the Floating World: Censorship and Japanese Prints. Exh. cat. The Asia Society Galleries, New York, 1991. 

Toita, Y., & Yoshida, C. Kabuki. Trans. D. Kenny. Osaka, 1967. Utagawa Kuniyoshi: An Exhibition of the Work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) Based on the Raymond A. Bidwell Collection of Japanese Prints at the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts. Exh. cat. Springfield Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1980. 

Van den Ing, E., & Schaap, R. Beauty and Violence: Japanese Prints by Yoshitoshi 1839–1892. Exh. cat. Society for Japanese Arts, Amsterdam, 1992. 

Waterhouse, D. B. Harunobu and His Age: The Development of Colour Printing in Japan. London, 1964. 

Watson, W. (ed). The Great Japan Exhibition: Art of the Edo Period 1600–1868. Exh. cat. Royal Academy, London, 1981.