There are two recent publications celebrating Hiroshige’s views of Japan: Nancy Gaffield’s poem cycle Tokaido Road (C B Editions £7.99) and Taschen’s Hiroshige – 100 Famous Views of Edo. The former is an imaginary journey along the famous Tokaido highway; one poem for each of the 53 stations, all of them inspired by Hiroshige’s original 1832 journey and the famous series of landscape prints of the same name. The second is part of Taschen Books’ thirtieth anniversary publications and is a lavish facsimile of Hiroshige’s last great series, The One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.
It is an interesting comparison. As far as I am aware, Nancy Gaffield did not undertake the journey herself (for an account of that I recommend Rediscovering the Old Tokaido by Patrick Carey), and uses the woodblock prints as her guide, imagining both modern and 1830’s encounters as she makes her virtual journey from Edo to Kyoto. What kind of journey though is Gaffield attempting here? Hiroshige is not an especially reliable guide, as artists tend not to be. In a previous post we looked at the precarious balance of verisimilitude and pictorial necessity that Hiroshige achieved in this series (although as Patrick Carey points out in his excellent diary account of the modern route, it would be unwise to use the woodblock prints as a guide to navigation). Like Hiroshige, Gaffield is proposing an imaginative journey; it is certain that the human incidents that populate the prints were plundered randomly from sketches, the prints themselves having been executed many months after the journey. But whose experience is the author using in these poems?
I am reminded of Rimbaud’s poetry when reading the fourth poem, Kanagawa (the more so given the structure of the piece – prose poems, blank verse and so on):
Late evening clouds are stained with indigo/Minding the eaves at the roofs’ rim, we heft up the hill/A ribbon of blue loops through the sky…
In Rimbaud’s Season in Hell the reader is similarly taken on a journey, but one of the poet’s own landscape and this seems to me to be more satisfactory. How much can a westerner know of such a different culture? How accurately can we put ourselves into the minds of a nineteenth century soba noodle seller or a poverty stricken fisherman who had never left the confines of his village? By extension, how much can we trust the narrator of these poems… are we as readers here being given an authentic response to the prints or a fanciful speculation on the lives of people we can never, in the west, hope to know or have meaningful insight into, and what purpose does it all serve?
I found all of this unsettling, as I do whenever western writers or artists portray exotic or remote cultures and impose upon them motivations or types of being that we assume, without foundation, to be true. I did prefer Patrick Carey’s Walking the Tokaido. In this dry account of a gruelling walk, often on unglamorous and busy dual carriageways that have replaced the old winding route, Carey introduces people whose lives have real complexity and depth and sometimes suffering (if it is only the suffering of living on a motorway); whose ancestry and relationship to the route reveals an intimacy with landscape that is missing from these poems of Japonisme.
One failing of the book as an object is the lack of illustrations, not an accusation that can be leveled at the Taschen publication. This lavish book with its facsimile Japanese binding comes with a faux mica inner cover, uncut pages and bamboo clasp that replicates as much as possible the spirit at least of the original prints in bound format. All one hundred of Hiroshige’s most ambitious prints are illustrated with commentaries and there is an excellent introductory essay with maps and technical explanations by Melanie Trede. The prints, with their extraordinary designs, their quiet intimacy are allowed to speak for themselves and this I think is where, in the end, I struggle with the the poems. These works by Hiroshige are a great artistic achievement. His careful balance of landscape and figure bravely puts man in a secondary role to the span of the rivers, the sweep of the hills, the power of Fuji … even the Daimyo himself, pictured in the Hakone stage of the route, with his enormous procession of horses, is engulfed by the steep climb, his grandness reduced to that of an insect overwhelmed by landscape.
The toothless fishwife, the ferry passengers, the fisherman and so on are not important here, the people in these prints are witnesses only to the primary subject of the prints – nature. In that respect Hiroshige was a disciple of Hokusai who said;
At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature.
For me at least, the prints speak for themselves, even across cultures. It was surely Hiroshige’s clear intention, following buddhist precepts, that it is not man who is at the centre of the universe… Hiroshige, like Hokusai, leaves that to nature.