When most people first start to look at Japanese woodblock prints I suppose that they are struck by the colours or the force of the design, a nagging familiarity or perhaps a sense just of beauty and rightness. Certainly it was this ‘rightness’ that first attracted me to owning these lovely things.
But none of these works of art were produced for their own sake. There are very few scenic pictures in ukiyo-e… there are landscapes but more often than not these served as pictorial guides to famous routes or else as backdrops for actor portraits. Most prints have a story to tell and it’s this aspect of the art that I find so fascinating. Not many people in the west can read Japanese and I have many Japanese friends who find it equally difficult to decipher meaning from these pictures, so where to start?
Most prints conform to sets of rules and the easiest of these to disentangle are the cartouches… the small panels of writing dotted over the surface. Looking at the print opposite, The Modern Comparison of the Thirty-six Poets, we can see how these can give us a greater understanding of the print. (Click image for a larger version.)
The prints in this series compare poets with flowers but in this print we see a portrait of the famous actor Sawamura Tossho II, so what’s going on? What this print is really illustrating is the story of Ume no Yoshibei, a Robin Hood character or otokadate. These were street gangs, the forerunners of the modern day yakuza, who were said to protect people from lawless samurai. In the play, Yoshibei murders a young man for money and during the fight, Yoshibei’s finger is bitten off. The victim turns out to be the brother of Yoshibei’s wife Kuomi. Kuomi finds Yoshibei’s finger in her dead brother’s mouth and realises that he has been murdered by her husband. She kills herself in grief, having cut off her own finger. But how do we know that this is Yoshibei? Any theatre lover of Edo (the old name for Tokyo) would have recognised the white herons and black crows on the kimono of Ume no Yoshibei. These devices symbolize innocence and bad luck respectively. This pattern immediately identifies the character of Yoshibei and hence the well known story of tragic violence.
Looking again at the print of Yoshibei, the big box in the top right of the print contains the series title and the print title. The odd shape to the left in red and yellow is Kunisada’s signature and is quickly recognisable. Underneath that is a date and censor seal and beneath that is the carver’s seal in yellow and the publisher’s seal in white. So, what has this print told us? It is a print by Utagawa Kunisada from June 1862. It was carved by hori Ota Tashichi and published by Hiranoya Shinzo and pictures the famous actor Sawamura Tossho II as the robber Yoshibei, at the same time making a comparison between a modern poet and the flower in the cartouche above.
There are many good books available that carry this kind of information. The Japanese were excellent record keepers so this knowledge is thankfully not lost. The internet, too, provides an excellent resource of detailed knowledge if you know where to look. By putting, ‘herons and crows in kabuki’ into Google for example you will find a link on page one from the excellent kabuki21, identifying Yoshibei. Ukiyo-e signatures are available on many other sites, and so on. Building up knowledge of a print and what exactly it represents is one of the great joys of collecting.