Return of the Upside-down Man


Kunisada, Mitanoshi to Yamuba

Readers of our other blog,  will be familiar with our interest in the enigmatic ‘upside-down’ man. This curious figure appears in various forms all over the ukiyo-e world of the nineteenth century. The origin of the pose in Japanese woodblock prints is obscure, however readers of the last blog post on the subject will be aware of our attempts to trace the original classical model for the figure in western painting. The thought here is that given the strange and awkward pose of the character and its dissonance within the compositions, it must have been a copy, made from perhaps a Dutch engraving, itself based on a painted original.


Kunisada, Ichikawa Gangyoku as Tagobei. 1849

This post introduces a few new images of our acrobatic man… there is something sinister here… possibly because the pose and circumstance are so redolent of the hanged man in the western tarot-card pack? At the top of the page, the print shows the characters of Yamauba, an old woman who lives in the mountains, and Mitanoshi,  an old priest or monk, in a shosagoto dance routine with a rabbit and a deer competing in a feat of strength by standing on their fore-paws with the trunk of a tree across the back of their necks. Above, another Kunisada, this time showing a scene from the production of Ichi-no-tani  (1849), showing the actors Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as the Minamoto warrior Okabe Rokuyata Tadazumi (left), Ichikawa Gangyoku as Tagobei (centre), and Ichikawa Kodanji IV as the Taira warrior Satsuma no kami Taira no Tadanori; Tagobei flying through the air in front of a mountainous lake.


Kunisada, 1840’s

And here is our acrobatic victim, again trapped by someone’s foot coming to rest upon his unfortunate neck.

All of which puts me… (and especially given those exciting animal characters in the top picture), in mind of the latest show at the Toshidama gallery opening on the 21st October 2016: Legend in Japanese Art – Henri Joly and Japanese Prints. As the title suggests, the show is being posthumously ‘curated’ by the great compiler of Japanese legend, Henri Joly, whose encyclopedic work, Legend in Japanese Art (published in 1908) forms the basis of the selection and indeed much of the catalogue notes as well.


Kuniyoshi, The 100 Ogura Poets. Kintaro. 1847

The top picture shows an incarnation of Yama-uba. Henri Joly, gives two incarnations of her… the first as follows, as a terrifying witch:

YAMA UBA, the mountain nurse is another female goblin, occasionally described as having a mouth under her hair, the locks of which transform themselves into serpents, or catch small children, upon whom the Yama Uba feeds. Yama Uba, mother of Kintoki, however, differed from these.

As Kintaro’s (Kaidomaru) nurse, she is altogether more palatable.


Yoshitoshi. Kaidomaru and Yama-uba. 1873

…lost in the mountains by his mother, Yaegiri, and picked up by the mountain nurse, the YAMA UBA, who adopted him and named him KAIDOMARU. This latter version is generally adopted. Kintaro grew to an enormous strength, wrestling in the mountain with all the beasts and goblins, including the monkey, the stag, the bear, and the Tengu, and he is frequently represented fighting one or other of the last two. His usual companions are the deer, the hare, and the mischievous “red back,” the monkey. His weapon is an enormous axe, and on children’s kites he is often depicted carrying it.

As you might appreciate, there is a great delight in tying all of these threads together. You will no doubt have noticed that in a neatly circular connection, Joly mentions the Hare and the deer as Kintaro’s constant companions… just the characters of the upside down actors in the print at the top of the page. We shall be revisiting these old legends on this blog, over the coming weeks, looking at different prints from the current exhibition. Legend in Japanese Art, Henri Joly and Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery from 21st October 2016.

Henri Joly’s book Legend in Japanese Art may be downloaded for free or browsed online here. Also there are further essays on Japanese prints and Japanese culture to be found on our eblogger site.


About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
This entry was posted in Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Ukiyo-e landscape art, Upside-down Man and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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