Where are the Shadows in Japanese Prints

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, 1831.

An unusual feature of Japanese woodblock prints, one often overlooked by experts and by the casual ‘reader’, is the unsettling absence of shadows. In western drawing and painting shadows form the very important function of rooting the subject against its ground… tying the object to the surface. Strangely I am reminded of the J M Barrie’s children’s book, Peter Pan, and the scene where the hero has his shadow trapped in the window and needs to have it reaffixed by Wendy using needle and thread!

Peter Pan and Wendy, illustrated by Marjorie Torrey

The problem that Barrie sets up for his young reader is: ‘what anchors us to the ground that we walk upon? Where is solid earth?’ It’s a question, whether in the novel form or the Disney animation, which I am sure troubles some readers at least… The existence of the personal shadow of course marks us out as physical, of this world, flesh and blood.

Shigeharu, 1830 – (note the ghostly flames from the skull).

Famously in western myth, ghosts and vampires do not cast shadows nor have reflections. Something to note here though is that conversely in Japanese folklore it is the shadow and the reflection which identifies the supernatural, the demon, the impostor, the witch. Perhaps for the Japanese at least, it was necessary to signify otherness through manifestation… which begs the question why in the thousands upon thousands of woodblock prints from the nineteenth century and earlier is there an absence of this visible and tangible proof of existence? In western philosophy of course Plato’s allegory of the cave suggests the opposite of that idea – in Plato’s example, the shadows are merely the superficial truth, though I want here to distinguish between shadow – a shade cast by and belonging to a person – and projection – the casting of outlines of things from an independent light source.

In early examples of print in Japan, pictures were primarily illustrations of ideas… the act of drawing was inclined to represent ideas – ideas found in books and stories. There was no tradition amongst print artists of representing the uniqueness of the visible world and perhaps the conventions of rendering foundered at the first attempt. The gradual development of woodblock printing embraced lavish scenes of elegant females on boats and in nature, and whilst extraordinary efforts were made by artists such as Shuncho and Eishi to render trees, interiors, buildings, lakes and flowers with extreme delicacy, none of their attempts contained shadows or light and shade as used habitually in western conventions.

Yoshikazu, 1861 – Teahouse Interior, without shadows.

In the west, use of painted shadows developed in the visual arts during the Renaissance as being an essential component of realism. By 1814, in Europe the absence of a personal shadow, (as in Adelbert von Chamisso’s story of Peter Schlemiel, the man who sold his shadow) would signal the absence of human life.

So what were these exceptionally skilled Japanese draftsmen thinking when not rendering light and shade in their woodblock art? One might say that rendering shadows in woodblocks is very difficult but a glance at the woodblock prints of German Expressionist artists like Max Beckmann shows this not to be the case.

In nineteenth century Japanese woodblocks I think it is probably necessary to get behind the image and try to deconstruct what exactly is being represented… these complex images will prove much more subtle than they first appear. Looking at the print above by Kunisada from 1831, we can see a night scene, a large crescent moon – definitely enough light to see by, and cast a shadow – and three protagonists. Of course, a glance at the title tells us this is not the case – all is not as it seems. The print is a depiction of three actors; (left to right) Onoe Kikugoro IV, Bando Mitzugoro and Ichikawa Danzo on the stage in the kabuki drama, Tôkaidô Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost Story of Yotsuya). The drama is a tale of murder, betrayal and revenge. It has some roots in the events of two real life murders but its popularity was due to the inclusion of a ghost story that touched the lives of real townsfolk… a transition from fantasy similar to movies like Halloween in the 1970’s which took the supernatural and firmly embedded the potential of realism (threat) in the minds of a wider audience. The essentials of the plot concern a townsman who murders and disfigures his loving wife through greed and is later haunted by her ghost.

Already we have competing layers of meaning and ambiguities in representation building across the print. We are as viewers complicit in the belief that the moon shown here is a representation of the the moon and yet we know that it is not, (it is a painted theatre flat). We believe that we are looking at the murderers and their servants… at the drawn swords and the start of a fight and yet we know that we are not, (these are actors on a stage). Kunisada is clear (in his portrayal of the shallow space) that we are looking at the apron of a stage with painted sets parallel to the auditorium, and yet as viewers we are persuaded that this is an arena of the mind… of the imagination. We ‘know’ that we are looking at a picture of a play that itself depicts a story, that is itself a concoction of several sources… ideas of ideas if you like. This space that we see and the players upon it become metaphors for something much greater – shared knowledge.

Hirosada, 1840’s. Two actors. “The space that we see and the players upon it become metaphors…”

The artist and writer Christopher Bucklow ascribes the Greek word temenos to the shallow space depicted in the paintings of Francis Bacon:

Not only is all the work one work, but as in dreams, all the things in the works are one, in the sense that they each are ciphers of the self. The floor one walks upon, the carpets, the grass in the fields, the roads one traverses, all these are metaphors for aspects of the psyche….

 …For within the sacred quadrangle of the painting or video or photograph, or indeed gallery space; within this temenos, all the objects, images, actions and materials are paradigmatic of the moral self of the maker, his or her actual self, or ideal self, and with it is carried a proposal for the constituency of all individuals within society, and beyond that the nature of ideal society itself.  (“The Lens Within The Heart”, from Bacon and the Mind, The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing supported by Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation Monaco, in association with Thames & Hudson.)

Francis Bacon Triptych. 1976

This description also applies I think to the typical arrangement and psychological space of a kabuki print such as this one. I would extend that to include pretty well all genres of Japanese woodblock print of the nineteenth century. Bucklow’s key identification of the ground as a paradigm of the moral self… of the maker and of society… the ideal society, accords with the notion that the representation here is in itself ‘ideal’.

The language of the print (and its fellow prints of that century) is metaphoric, paradigmatic; its uses of realism are therefore specific, limited, restricted. The figure of Onoe Kikugoro at left identifies the signs for the actor’s facial features – but only enough for the print buying public to acknowledge. (The art of likeness in print was called Nigao, the artist Toyokuni I expanded the reach of Nigao or ‘true likeness’ in 1817 and even wrote an instruction manual about how to achieve it titled, Quick Instruction in the Drawing of Actor Likenesses.  This was a sophisticated code that conveyed the features of individual actors without breaking the convention of the kabuki face with its heavy make up and stylised expression. He stresses the importance of the nose, the eye, the mouth and the eyebrow. Portraits were almost always shown in three-quarter view rather than in profile or straight on, the artist was to draw the nose first, then the mouth, the brows, the eyes and finally the outline of the face itself.)

Kunisada, Actor as Otokodate, 1844

In addition – another layer of meaning – the costume and the stance of the character set the actor in the role, the role itself carrying with it a common, a shared history all of its own. The drama that is enacted with the other two characters takes place in the contained space of the temenos – the cut off place – a space free of verisimilitude, where the landscape such as it is, consists of stand-ins for the solid world. These tokens, (stand-ins) – the odd trellis in the centre sheet – are signifiers of the play’s identity. Another example of the trellis signifier is pictured below in a print made some forty years later, the statue in the background, likewise.

Therefore, to echo Bucklow’s commentary on Bacon, these are all metaphors for the psyche – a Jungian might extend that to include the collective unconscious. Jung in fact expands this metaphor himself in Psychology and Alchemy (1968) describing the temenos as a ‘square-space’ that might – especially in alchemy – resemble a rose garden with fountain, an arena whereby an encounter with aspects of the unconscious might be had… in this way one might as Jung describes it, ‘meet one’s own shadow’, personifications of the self, characters (actors) of one’s own, imaginative theatre.

This theatre as a metaphor for the imaginative psyche was expounded by the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who described the ‘insult’ of reality upon the infant mind. Winnicott elaborates a ‘potential space’ not dissimilar to Jung’s description of the temenos. As a consolation  for the loss of omnipotence Winnicott postulates a potential space created out of necessity by the growing infant to which inner reality and external life both contribute. He surmised that the child fills this theoretical arena with symbols, the accumulation of symbols maturing in time to the semblance of a cultural life which would ideally imitate the first life with the mother. Winnicott described this intermediate area as ‘the location of cultural experience’… I suggest that the dream-like temenos of Japanese prints is just such an arena… a dreaming space for a stressed culture, a pooling of common cultural knowledge, expectation and desire.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) Ichikawa Danjuro VIII as Sukeroku, 1850.

I think that it is also important to note here that the artists of the Edo period did not invent characters or stories. They were not ‘creatives’ in the modern, post-romantic sense. The characters that populate these extraordinarily sophisticated and imaginative works all inhabit the common pool… the ‘sea of souls’. An artist such as Kunisada would merely pluck the scene from this ‘group-consciousness’ as would the playwright and the novelist. In this way, the imaginative expression, limitless in scope, was nevertheless wrought from familiar stuff.

These metaphors do not need to be rooted and in fact demand the freedom to exist as signs and symbols; emblems on a field, that is the freedom they in fact need… the freedom whereby they are able to adopt meaning.

The prints and the individuals imagined in them, do not want shadows because to adopt them would undermine their importance and their independent existence. When they were conceived, the absence of shadows allowed them to drift like ghosts through the dream lands of the Edo psyche and allows them now to inhabit a new less understood existence that nevertheless is the basis for their continuing, enigmatic importance.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) Onoe Kikugoro V as Taira no Masakado, 1890.

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 ghosts, Japanese Art, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized, Utagawa Yoshikazu, Woodblock print and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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