Woodblock prints of Japanese warriors tended to dominate the ukiyo-e scene from the 1820’s until nearly the end of the century. What is surprising is how so many prints were produced of battles, skirmishes, victories and defeats without actually witnessing any. Japan had experienced an unprecedented period of peace for hundreds of years and despite the dominance of the warrior class – the samurai – no one got to see active service of any kind. The misleading impression one might get from the output of ukiyo-e artists is one of continuous bloody struggle when paradoxically the reverse was true.
One of the reasons for the pre-eminence of the genre is justifiable paranoia. The Japanese by the mid nineteenth century were well aware of the encroaching foreign powers, long before Commander Perry’s enforced trade treaty of 1854. In the absence of anything like a national army or navy, the country was forced to remind itself of its valiant past to stave of the understandable anxiety of the future.
This situation changed abruptly with the restoration of the Meiji monarchy in the 1860’s. The government embraced the foreign powers with enthusiasm, basing the new national army on that of the Prussians and their new iron-clad navy on that of the British. Officers were sent abroad to study and traditional costume gave way to military uniform. Woodblock artists were in some ways, (perhaps like the population as a whole) slow to catch up on these changes. There were popular prints of westerners in the freeport of Yokohama but these prints are very much the view from the inside looking out. The great woodblock artists of the 1870’s and 1880’s such as Kunichika and Yoshitoshi invariably dithered between representations of the theatre or else coy reference, (but reference nonetheless) to what Kunichika titled the changes of Modern Customs and Manners.
The biggest revolution to woodblock printing was brought about by the first Sino-Japanese war in 1894. There was a new, albeit brief flowering of artistic talent that enthusiastically embraced the jingoistic nationalism of a foreign adventure. Overnight, warriors were dressed in the acquired clothes of the western military machine, iron ships engaged in dramatic naval bombardments and fearless and heroic soldiers stormed the Chinese ramparts in realistic poses, caught as if on the spot by the artist. This new tranche of reportage based war art proved immensely popular with the ecstatic Japanese public who demanded more and more images of heroism from the front.
Artistically, many of these prints are quite poor and pedestrian but the best are among the very best woodblocks produced at any time. Mizuno Toshikata is outstanding among these young artists and the print illustrated below is a tour-de-force not just of design but of the printer’s art and ability in handling complex layers of tone. This exquisite nocturne avoids the excessive jingoism of many contemporary prints and introduces subtle and exquisite drawing into the trees and the forlorn figure of the enemy cresting the rise. Compare this image, with its realism of gesture and pose, with the Kuniyoshi of 1825, illustrated at the top of the page. In this print we admire the astonishing abstract design sense, the vigorous lines and the fantastical subject. But the hero defeating the snake is only standing in for a sense of national pride; in the Toshikata we witness the common man, the foot-soldier, elevated to the position of hero and we know that we really are there – at the birth of the new Japan.
Both of these prints feature in the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery, Heroes and Villains: Japanese Samurai Prints. Subscribers to the Toshidama Gallery Newsletter can claim 10% off these extraordinary and collectible images.