Tales in Japanese Woodblock Prints

Toyohara Kunichika, The Actors Onoe Kikugoro V and Nakamuro Sajuro, 1898

The January 2022 exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery looks at prints that tell a story… which is of course the vast majority of the output of Japanese kabuki theatre and history prints.

The absence of still-life for example, and the relatively small number of landscape artists speaks of the Edo artist’s desire to use visual means to tell sophisticated stories. Not only were Edo narratives often complex in themselves, they were made more so by dint of reference to contemporary events…by analogy or by discreet mitate, (allusion and punning).

The selection draws equally from the two centres of theatre and art of the period: Osaka and Edo (modern day Tokyo). The prints from Osaka tend to be on the smaller format chuban size and because print runs were small and the clientele drawn from richer circles the quality of the printing is staggering: rich and brilliant clours, metallic inks and deep embossing were common requirements of Osaka printmakers.

Hirosada, Onoe Kikugoro III as Nikki Danjo, 1848

The stunning Hirosada (the lower print), is a theatre print and tells the story of the arch villain, necromancer and magician, Nikki Danjo. Both this print and the print by Kunichika at the top, include some written information but the storytelling has to be done through the images. What makes that work is the special knowledge of the viewer. At this remove, especially since not many people read the nineteenth century scripts, there is litle to go on. What’s important then is the shared culture between the audience for the art and the artists who made the work. Theatre enthusiasts – which was nearly everybody in Osaka in the 1840’s – would have known the plots of the various plays featuring the villain Nikki Danjo. The strange objects that float in the background to the square portrait are all narrative clues to the play. That snaking, twining flame (a shinka), to the left was a convention to show that a supernatural event has occurred. The scroll of paper is key to the plot since it contains the names of conspirators involved in the overthrow of the government; the actor would have been known to the audience by his portrait. The image tells us that this is the magician using supernatural means to embark upon a plot with co-conspirators and the need to retrieve a damning scroll of paper.

Yoshitoshi, Actor Bando Hikosaburo V as Nikki Danjo, 1862/3.

The print above is of the same subject, an actor playing Nikki Danjo… how different they are. The print by Yoshitoshi has clearly had a hard life. There is discolouration and some damage but the reason we are showing it is because it is nevertheless, a rare and important piece. Yoshitoshi is the most significant Japanese artist of the second half of the nineteenth century, this print is previously unknown, very rare and from the first few years of his career. This print was made in Edo – modern day Tokyo. Aside from the physical differences of size – it is twice as big – and of production value, the dynamism of the print is quite different to the Hirosada. The image has more in common with the western portrait; by contrast the smaller Osaka print uses a quite different visual language… we have no narrative clues in the Yoshitoshi aside from the greyness that suggests otherworldliness.

Kunichika, Rokusaburo, from the series Matches for the Kana Syllables, 1866

Sometimes the connections and the relationships to the different objects become very complicated… take the Kunichika print above for example, it helps to identify the size and shape of the giant carp in the background!

The missile like object in the upper left is a fire standard. Behind that object in the panel are the tools of the firemen: the scaling ladders and the hooked staves used for tearing thatch off the roof. In the panel below is the kabuki character Rokusaburo grappling a giant fish, sword in his teeth… how then do these disparate elements relate?

The kana alphabet was the old alphabet of kanji characters. It was sometimes seen as an interesting theme for artists to find ways of linking images to the letters of the alphabet, as in this case. In this print the syllable is ro. The firefighting brigades of Edo were organised into 48 groups and each was designated a single kana syllable. The standard here is for the brigade of that syllable (ro), and Rokusaburo begins with that letter also.

The image is of the actor Ichimura Kakitsu IV in the role of the carpenter Rokusaburo. After the theft of a valuable painted scroll of a giant fish from a nearby restaurant by two thieves, the carpenter sets off in pursuit of the villains. During a struggle between the three performers, the painted fish magically springs to life and dives into the water. Kunichika here is making punning connections between disparate elements to tell a story… a print called a mitate.

Fontana Books, Agatha Christie, Mid-twentieth C

The cover of the Agatha Christie crime novel above does exactly the same thing as the Kunichika. Apparantly disparate elements of a murder mystery are arranged in order that the reader can pleasingly untangle a murder mystery plot.

Yoshitora (active 1850-1880) A Battle from the Taiheiki, 1840’s

The Yoshitora print above is very different from the theatre prints that precede it. It is a classic warrior print (or musha-e) from the 1840’s. Like the Kunichika print at the top of the page it is of a soldier about to die. The two prints tell the similar story of flight and pursuit and take for granted the shared narrative history of the audience. The Kunichika takes its cue from the existing genre of warrior prints but updates the imagery and the composition, making it cinematic before its time.

The Yoshitora uses traditional means to tell a story… a comic book sequence in as much as we see the events spread across the page from right to left. On the right sheet we can observe a pursuing army on horseback and on foot. The centre sheet isolates the doomed victim on a spit of land and the left sheet holds his fate, a small temple with monks where he will meet his death.

The title – A Battle from the Taiheiki (Taiheiki kassen no zu) – refers to the late stages of the unification of Japan during the period of the warring states, in the sixteenth century. Oda Nobunaga was loyal to the powerful Tokegawa leader Ieyasu and total victory over all of Japan seemed at hand but Nobunaga was betrayed by an ally, Mitsuhide. Mitsuhide, aware that Nobunaga was nearby and unprotected saw an opportunity to act. Mitsuhide led his army toward Nobunaga and announced to his troops: “The enemy awaits at Honnō-ji!” In June 1582, before dawn, the Akechi army surrounded the Hono-ji temple with Nobunaga present. Although Nobunaga and his servants resisted the unexpected intrusion, they were soon overwhelmed. As the Akechi troops closed in, Nobunaga decided to commit seppuku in one of the inner rooms. Reportedly his last words were: “Ran, don’t let them come in…” referring to his young page, Ranmaru who set the temple on fire as Nobunaga requested so that no one would be able to get his decapitated head.

Kunisada/Toyokuni III, Thirty-six Views of the Eastern Capital: Hachiman, 1863.

Japanese prints from the nineteenth century are about storytelling, first and foremost. They revel in narrative and what is narrative but the unravelling of human experience? Life lived, is the continuous thread that unites Japanese printed art. What fascinates is that the lives that are so often recorded, despite the many retellings through dramas and novels remain rooted in the experience of the townspeople of Edo and their dilemmas at such an historical and cultural distance to our own experience remains nevertheless exciting and familiar.

Telling Tales in Japanese Prints is at Toshidama Gallery until mid-March.

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 Edo, firemen, Floating World, Hirosada, Japanese Art, japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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