Hirosada Seisuiki Deluxe Chuban triptych 1851
Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon in Act 6 of Seisuiki, 1851.

I thought hard about the title of this selection of prints at the Toshidama Gallery this autumn. The prints we have chosen are all prints made in the city of Osaka in the middle of the nineteenth century… they have nothing to do with the city whose name is synonymous with terror and were mostly made a full century before the fateful date of the nuclear explosion that took so many lives and changed history.

Hirosada Nakamura Utaemon IV in Natsu Matsuri, 1850.
Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon IV in Natsu Matsuri, 1850.

The title, is derived from a 1959 film made by the director Alain Resnais and written by the author Marguerite Duras.The film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, tells the oblique story of an actress visiting the city of Hiroshima in order to make a film about peace and a Japanese architect who fall in love. The film is notable for launching a new visual language in European cinema and in heralding the French “Nouvelle Vague” in cinema. It is remembered though for its sadness, its longing and its themes of memory and forgetfulness. My own strong feelings about the woodblock prints of Osaka accord at some level with these emotions and I have felt a strong connection between these lost images of regret, longing and memory and the film which I first saw in the mid 1970’s.

Mid century Osaka woodblock prints by artists such as Hirosada, Ashiyuki, Yoshitaki and Yoshikuni have an extraordinary static quality that is often at odds with the vitality of the subject matter or the attributes of the character. This composed design is due not to a lack of skill on the part of the artist, far from it; the skill of the artists is pre-eminent in these pieces which contain a depth and a melancholy that is interestingly at variance with their fellow artists in Edo, the centre of the woodblock industry in Japan. In Edo the prints are robust and tend to towards the expressive and aggressive forms of expression.It is fine and stirring and reflects the difference in acting style between the two centres. But I think that the Utagawa School that produced the bulk of Edo prints in the nineteenth century can lack the depth, the subtlety and the melancholy of these Osaka printmakers whose work seems to hold the viewer in a trance.

Still from Hiroshima Mon Amour 1959

In the movie, there is the suffering that the female lead has witnessed in the aftermath of the bomb and then there is the suffering in her own life – her love affair in occupied France with a German officer, his death and her public humiliation at the hands of the mob. Perhaps you can see now some connections with the plots and sub-plots of the kabuki dramas with which these prints are obsessively entwined. For us now, the horrors in the film are still a recent and painful memory, the plot twists and melodrama of the nineteenth century kabuki stage perhaps seem trivial or ridiculous. To the audiences in Osaka and to the artists that depicted the plays, the dramas were every bit as real and as affecting. We cannot know nor feel at this distance the deep sense of loss, the mourning, the ecstasy that kabuki fans felt for the twists and turns of the semi-historical characters portrayed on the stage, but we can experience their emotions by staring long enough into the face of Kato Kiyomasa, in a staggering portrait by Hirosada from 1851.

Hirosada The Actor Nakamura Utaemon IV as Sato Masakiyo, 1851
Hirosada, The Actor Nakamura Utaemon IV as Sato Masakiyo, 1851.

For the Osaka artists and indeed for the actors, the relationship between the role and the actor was complex; additionally of course there was then the relationship of the role to actual character… often, (as in this case) disguised by layers of pseudonyms and anachronisms designed to put the government political censors off the scent of subversion or sedition. In this very brilliant and quite outstanding print, what we are looking at is a portrait of three ‘entities’… in the first place, we are looking at the historic character of Kato Kiyomasa, also called Toranosuke, a Japanese daimyo. He was born in 1562 and was a relative of Hideyoshi, whose service Kato Kiyomasa entered upon reaching manhood and soon distinguished himself in battle. Upon Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, Kiyomasa returned to Japan and aided Tokugawa Ieyasui. For his services, he received the Castle of Kumamoto as his provincial residence. He also brutally suppressed Christianity in Kyushu. In his later years, he tried to work as a mediator for the increasingly complicated relationship between Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyori. In 1611, en route by sea to Kumamoto, he fell ill, and died shortly after his arrival. It was rumoured that he was poisoned by Tokugawa Ieyasu. For censorship reasons he transformed into the character, Sato Masakiyo when portrayed on the kabuki stage. But this is also a portrait of the fanatically popular actor, Nakamura Utaemon IV, and it is also a study in its own right… a study of the character who is at once all and none of those iterations above.

Hirosada,  Nakamura Utaemon IV as Tadaemon, 1850.

What we see in this sheet of paper, not much more than ten inches high, is a strange concoction of all of these and none of these. In the film, which we are tied to in this piece… the dialogue is about memory and forgetting, about how memories fade, people forget, people are forgotten. There is a melancholy inevitability to this. But to embrace the future, perhaps the past must be forsaken. It is especially this quality of melancholy that all of the portrait pieces in the Toshidama show share. Another outstanding feature that they all share is their familiarity with each other, a shared language of shape and form and line, also a shared emotional language which is something delicate and fleeting. Within these external constraints, of format: the small, chuban print; of subject matter: the kabuki theatre and its actors; of medium: the woodblock and its unique constraints; each print creates a unique and memorable portrait which, as above is both of its actor, its role, its historical figure… and also none of these. The prints achieve a kind of universal truth, a truth intimately tied to melancholy, anchored in the past and the suffering of that past and, because I think of their studied archaism, a longing for a past that is defiant of and yet horribly fearful of the future.

Film Poster for Hiroshima Mon Amour

The images seem to me to be prescient, rightly so in their anxiety. As Eric Rohmer said of the Resnais masterpiece, it is a portrait of ‘the anguish of the future’. In less than forty years Japanese culture would be swept away by the black ships of the Americans and by the aggressive capitalism of the Europeans. Every shred of meaning that can be taken from these great images would be torn up, denied, ridiculed and forsaken. One hundred years hence, the same Americans would inflict an untold horror upon the cities of Japan and an occupying army would destroy by commerce and indeed by legislation the last vestiges of a unique and delicate culture. We in the west do not lament that, strangely. The Japanese are reviled for the atrocities of various wars and their contribution to art, architecture and culture has been whitewashed. What culture that remains internationally is a wry and perverse commentary on the excesses of American monopoly capitalism in its vulgar-most form. When I hold Hirosada’s portrait of Kiyomasa, I fancy I can see all of that in his distant gaze, and in that stoic and downturned mouth.

Hirosada, Nakamura Utaemon IV as Taira no Kiyomori, 1850  

Osaka Mon Amour: Tragedy and Loss is online at the Toshidama Gallery from the 29th of September 2017 for six weeks.

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 Hirosada, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Okubi-e, Osaka Prints, Osaka School, ukiyo-e and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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