Complex narrative lies at the heart of traditional Japanese culture. From the very beginnings, the Japanese were devoted to the structure of sophisticated narrative. The first true novel, the 11th century Genji monogatari – “The Tale of the Genji”- is Japanese and its complexity, psychological insight and structure predict two millennia of world literature. Weaving historical account into fictionalised epics became a signifier of court life in Japan. Genji was followed by the Heike Monogatari – “The Tale of the Heike”.Where Genji followed an account of courtly intrigue, sex, romance and family feuding, Heike was an epic account of the struggle between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan for dominance of the country in the Genpei war of the late 12th century.
Complex portraits of Taira and Minamoto heroes dominate much of the subject matter of Japanese woodblock prints. Of course because the Taira clan were defeated at the conclusion of the Genpei War at the Battle of Dan-no-ura, and the dominant Minamoto clan became the rulers of Japan up to and including the first half of the nineteenth century, representations of historic scenes could become highly political. Hence, in the stunning, dramatic portrait of Sawamura Chojuro V as Taira no Tadamori from 1852 (above), the artist Kunisada is portraying the narrative of a still active and political image. Kunisada’s task is further complicated by the fact that at this time it was actor portraits that were banned because of ‘moral decadence’ and it was ironically safer for him to depict a warrior from the defeated Taira as the primary subject.
The Genpei War was never far away from Japanese story telling. The print shown above, is actually an advertisement for a restaurant in Edo (Tokyo). If you are an English reader than an equivalent might be a pub called the “Lord Nelson” with a sign outside showing the battle of Trafalgar. Again in Japanese narrative things become more complicated… the picture is again of an actor… 1852 (the date of the print) is at the height of woodblock print culture but uncomfortably close to the moralising Tenpo Reforms of 1842 and the civil war that deposed the Minamoto looming ahead in 1864. Hence the print uses two references that would have been read by the public as both narrative and political. If such a thing seems far fetched, right now in Europe and in America especially, historic imagery… statues and paintings etc are being re-examined for suggestions that they might contain overt or hidden symbols of oppression whose message may translate into potent commentaries on contemporary narratives. A well known artist once said to me that he always got out of bed in the morning on the left side (he was a lifelong socialist), since every gesture however small was unavoidably political.
Imbuing images with narrative is inherent in Japanese culture of the Edo period. Kabuki theatre was the source of so much narrative fiction during the nineteenth century that the work of ukiyo-e artists was almost entirely devoted either to making representations of actual performances, as in the case of the theatre print above (which is actually another way of telling the tragedy and pathos behind the defeat of the Taira again, during the Genpei War)… or by inventing entirely new narratives that acted as a shared consciousness for the hard pressed townspeople of Edo. In a sense, kabuki prints (yakusha-e) were an escape from the real hardships that millions faced in a poverty stricken society incapable of change.
The theatre, and consequently prints of the theatre, offered hope (or sometimes suicide), as a way out. The new dramas of the nineteenth century centred on the complex schemes of poor townspeople to make money; cut deals (often involving heirlooms and swords); elope from strict family life; or murder in cold blood or by accident from sheer wickedness or stupidity. These stories and plots can be immensely complex and to our eyes, incomprehensible when attempting to navigate the complicated moral code of the times. The wish to maintain this public dialogue in a way transcended high art ambitions for many artists. In the woodblock print above by Kuniyoshi from a series of 100 prints devoted to the great classical poetry of the past, the artist chooses not to place the action in the distant past of the poem – the poem was written by Fujiwara no Akisuke (1090–1155) – but transposes the illustration to the eighteenth century and a kabuki drama about an Edo townsman, Yoshibei and his violent rivalry with a popular otokodate, Chokichi. The tale is long and complicated but played out today in every city all over the world… desperate young men in love, in poverty, in violent relation to authority. How different at first to the poem it seeks to illustrate:
From between the breaks
in the clouds that trail
on the autumn wind
leaks through the moon-
light’s clear brightness!
Contrasting the petty violence of the urban scene with this bucolic romance is masterful but also very typical of the day. The print (like all the others in the series) is a mitate… a print that stands in for a different meaning than is obvious… it enabled Kuniyoshi to ennoble the daily experience of the poor with the enlightened literature of the past. We do it nowadays more and more of course – Jonathon Miller’s famous production of the Verdi opera Rigoletto set in a 1950’s New York diner for example – but this example is typical of the tendency ukiyo-e artists and publishers to place narrative at the foreground of depiction.
Another print by Kuniyoshi (below) seems much more straightforward. We see a beautiful Japanese woman arranging her hair before a classical arrangement of lacquer mirror stands. It could of course be a bijin-ga or “glamour print” but there’s more to it than that. Narrative is so dominant in ukiyo-e that the medium allowed for the incorporation of extensive explication in frames and boxes, arranged as part of the design. In the frame (cartouche in the west), at top left we can see a great deal of complex cursive script… this is the story. The other red cartouche is the title of the series from which the print is taken, in this case the first clue! It tells us that the series is: Stories of Wise and Virtuous Women. The larger pane tells us that this is the story of Kesa Gozen. Endo Morito, the son of a minor courtier became infatuated with Kesa Gozen despite the fact that she was married to a palace guard. He bullied her until she agreed to his advances on the condition that he murder her husband. She concealed herself in her husband’s room having first cut off her long hair. Morito stole into the room and cut off the head of the sleeping figure only discovering later that he had killed the object of his desire. True melodrama played out in two forms, the written and the drawn on the same page.
In the current selection of prints at the Toshidama Gallery there are many ways in which the Edo artists chose to tell stories; as above, many are by mitate… the skilful standing in of one idea for another… the substitution of and actor for an historical figure; the lengthy explanatory text, woven into the stuff of the design; or even, as in the exquisite Toyokuni print below from 1790, in the remarkable us of a sophisticated western perspective technique across a series of prints that tells the story of the popular revenge of the 47 leaderless samurai, the ronin.
Ukiyo-e Stories: Narrative in Japanese Woodblock Prints is at Toshidama Gallery from 17th September 2020.