Japanese woodblock prints fall into a few specific genres: Warrior prints (musha-e), actor prints (yakusha-e), Beautiful Women (Bijin-ga) and landscape prints. Sometimes these categories overlap in as much as you may have a kabuki actor masquerading as a warrior in what is ostensibly a landscape print in order to avoid the periodic censorship on actors. Often portrayals of famous warriors would use actors as models in order to widen the appeal or more often because the actor was playing that role in an historic kabuki drama.
In the image above, the actor Arashi Kichisaburo is playing the warrior warlord Kato Kyomasa (1562 – 1611) from a series of prints that archly claim to be a guide to the post stations (travelodges) of the Kisokaido Road – the inland highway that connected the Imperial capital city Kyoto to the commercial and military capital of Edo (modern Tokyo). Well, here we see the unmistakable face of the actor but in a cunning sleight of hand, we (not us maybe but people familiar with such depictions) would also see the image of the great warlord. Compare this for example with Yoshitoshi’s image of the same character . The two sides of the portrait would seem like a lenticular image or ‘wiggle picture’, being both one and another picture at the same time. The artist and publisher preferred that the state censor saw the pleasing landscape of the post station at Fushumi. There is more still to this image of course. By 1854, state moral censorship was in decline and an image like this was more used as a game like a visual crossword than as an effective way to get around the law.
Fushumi was the site of one of Kyomasa’s successes, rescuing the ruler Hideyoshi from an earthquake stricken castle, hence Kunisada using this pairing. These great victories, these martial triumphs were fundamental to Japanese self image in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The names of the great middle ages generals, the long and complex sagas of the warring states before Japanese unification in the late 16th century were the backbone of Edo culture. The combination of the ‘Bushido’ (warrior way)… the samurai code as it is popularly called, and its obverse… ‘ukiyo’ the sensual, erotic life of the ‘floating world’ defined Edo culture until all of it came crashing down.
The picture which begins this post is of the fleet of the great Hideyoshi… rescued by his loyal servant Kiyomasa… setting off to invade Korea, totally unnecessary of course, but as a means to cement Hideyoshi’s domestic position amongst other warlords as the de facto Supreme Ruler of Japan. It is a wonderful print this, five sheets, nearly 1.2m long it shimmers with the iridescent blue of the Sea of Japan. This is a bravura piece – a masterpiece of design… note the trailing and seemingly endless tail of the fleet on the right sheet and the sense of continuation on the left… you can (I tried) nearly join the left of sheet one with the right edge of sheet five and make a rotunda, a continuous ribbon of war ships. Why though does Sadahide make this great piece in the early 1860’s? The answer lies in another very interesting piece which only reluctantly offers a clue to the ‘fighting spirit’.
The print above by Yoshikazu is from the same year more or less. The wide blue of the Sea of Japan is visible through through the windows but the windows themselves and the whole interior is like a building from eighteenth century London or Washington. The people of the five nations – United States, England, Holland, Portugal and Russia – are seen at a banquet being served by a Chinese servant. This club was situated in Yokohama on an island reserved for the 250 or so permanent foreign merchants imposed on the Japanese after the effective naval blockade of the Americans under Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy in 1853. He presented a demand to have a letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore presented to the shogun. When this demand was not met, he shelled a few buildings in the harbour. The letter was presented. Perry returned a year later to sign the Convention of Kanagawa, a treaty that opened the Japanese ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to U.S. trade. The terms were dictated by the Americans, and the Japanese had little choice but to agree, seeing that they were seriously technologically outmatched. Essentially the Japanese had seen the effective subjugation of the Chinese as an imperialist act and they feared a similar fate. The fighting spirit in this print is masquerading as a cream tea. The real clue to the print lies, as in the Sadahide panorama, in the ships… the subject of the Sadahide but in the Yoshikazu the boats are American, they are black – iron clad – invincible – and they lurk in the frame of the left hand window… an ominous reminder of shameful defeat.
What then in late Edo Japan was the role of the fighting spirit… the relentless picturing of conflict, wounds, gore, combat and death? I suppose that it is the same in most cultures- the masculine need to dominate, to rule and to win by arms. In Edo culture that physical expression of aggression was especially visible and it reflected I’m sure the Japanese sense of insecurity… a nationwde anxiety that without vigilance, the edifice of nationhood would collapse. I mean, as the comparison of the two prints above tends to show… they were right. But, in a globalised, capitalist world there is nowhere to hide. The obsessive picturing of the heroic distant past is the constant visual theme of much Japanese art.
The above prints by outstanding Osaka School artist Hirosada show how richly and heroically the figures of the past were depicted via both the kabuki stage and the artists that reflected it… these are actor portraits of war lords. Because they are kabuki prints they occupy the strange shared life of the warrior and the romantic role… a place unique in culture, almost a ‘dreaming place’ created by the Edo populace, a time far off when all was well. But the fighting spirit was by no means restricted to musha-e, to warriors of the glorious past. Look at the gory tragedy below…
This is a ‘townsman tragedy’. More popular by the late Edo than even the crunch of military bone against sword, these plays and the prints that they spawned were the every day soap operas of Edo. The plots were very often based on real events of the recent past and occasionally names were changed but always the events were grossly exaggerated to maximise pathos and melodrama. Edo was the largest, most densely populated city in the world by the mid-nineteenth century. In the heavy summer heat and winter snows people scraped livings as merchants and shopkeepers and firemen, falling out with neighbours, falling in love with inappropriate partners, setting up vendettas and struggling and grafting in violent, masculine street gangs. Violence was always round the corner. Brutality in the form of murders, beheadings, state executions and suicide was an everyday event. Life was indeed for many, nasty, brutish and short. Stories and dramas helped explain and contextualise the tragedy. These stories wove themselves into every corner of Edo life via the kabuki stage, woodblock prints, songs and printed books. The tales took on strange, violent and supernatural narratives, such as this minor miracle below, also by Hirosada.
The need to express through violence – not restricted to men by any means – seems to have been as much about insecurity… (like Britain perhaps, the insecurity of island nations? That need to remain secure whilst being vulnerable on all sides) as about pugnacious bravado. The sagas tell the stories of warlords riven by insecurity, by guilt and by unpredictability. There are surely parallels with medieval British rulers… Henry VIII for example and Shakespeare’s history plays and the milieu that surrounded them, are a comparable example. The dramas of Edo Japan, whatever their social stimulus nevertheless produced some of the greatest woodblock prints that the world has ever seen, hand in hand with some of the most gifted and influential artists of the nineteenth century. The last image on this page is of Arashi Rikan II as Ishida no Tsubone who in plotting to assasinate the prince regent, is forced to take her own life.
The exhibition, The Fighting Spirit in Japanese Prints is online at the Toshidama Gallery from the 9th of July 2021 for six weeks.