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.


Posted in Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Ukiyo-e landscape art, Upside-down Man | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Osaka and Edo… Woodblock Prints at Toshidama Gallery

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Hirosada, Woodblock Print 1852

It’s fantastic isn’t it, this great print by Hirosada from 1852. It’s one of several new prints we are showing at the Toshidama Gallery throughout July 2016. The prints are all scenes composed of more than one sheet of paper… sometimes there are four sheets in these polyptychs, more often than not three. One thing most of the prints have in common is that they depict theatre scenes. Like this one, the scenes often falls short of real life… it’s quite the pantomime horse this! But whilst we can read this as a man in a horse costume, we can’t then read the figure in space… he’s in that mysterious, (but gorgeous) water. Is the water a painted theatre flat, or is it the ocean? Again, there’s no easy answer.

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Hirosada, Print of the Priest Nichiren 1850

The same problem occurs with the print above, The cast are conceivably on the stage apron, but what of the dramatic lightning? The lightning is in the artist’s mind… it does not exist either in reality or on the stage. So many of these nineteenth century prints defy logical explanation. Early prints of the Tokugawa School were concerned very deeply with likeness… the founder, Toyokuni I wrote a treatise on likeness. At some point the brilliance of the medium and the popularity of history prints seduced the artists into making prints that actually lived in the liminal world of the possible. Out of that third, other space come these visionary prints… this is a shared desire, a shared dream between the artist and the fanatical audiences for these works. Because the stage of which these pictures was so much a part,  like the movies in America of the 1930’s, was a passionate escape from a life of hardship but also an outlet for fear, longing and frustration… these prints are a gasp for freedom and that, I think, is why they captivate us today, more than a century after the end of Edo Japan… the fact is these are, despite the artifice, authentic.

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Kunisada, Woodblock Print. 1825

Multi-sheet Prints from Edo and Osaka is at the Toshidama Gallery, online during July 2016.

Posted in Hirosada, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunisada, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brexit, Isolationism and the Tokugawa Shogunate.


Kuniteru II Panorama of the Northern Provinces

There’s no political agenda to this post whatsoever… although it seems that the parallels that exist between Tokugawa era Japan and the current state of the United Kingdom are too close not to merit comment in some way, however small. The phrase, Sakoku means literally “closed country” and describes the deliberate isolationist policy embarked upon by the rulers of Japan in the seventeenth century. It refers to the foreign relations policy of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate whereby severe restrictions were placed on the entry of foreign nationals into Japan and (in a departure to the proposals by the “leave” campaign at the moment), the prohibition of Japanese nationals to leave the country on penalty of death. The laws extended to the nearly complete restriction of trade and imports except through very narrow terms of entry, leading not only to technical and developmental isolation, but cultural seclusion and separation.

The policy was introduced by Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1639 and remained officially in effect until the mid 1860’s and  the arrival of the American Black Ships of Commodore Matthew Perry which began the opening of Japan to Western trade and the enforced movement towards open borders. Eventually, these changes led to the creation of an environment that encouraged the  Meiji revolution which was completed by the restoration of the monarchy in 1868. It’s handy to make the assumption that the islands of Japan were completely cut off from the rest of the world for several centuries… at first glance, through both cultural and historical documents, Japan can seem as if it were almost a separate planet in the solar system of early modern development in the rest of the world. This is not actually the case. Japan was not completely isolated under the sakoku policy. It was a system in which strict regulations were applied to commerce and foreign relations by the shogunate. In practice this meant that chosen states – the Dutch for example – were allowed to trade pretty freely through the ports at Nagasaki, as was some trade with China.


Western Traders at Yokohama, Sadahide 1861

Cultural and diplomatic links were established and frequently revisited. The impetus for the isolationism though does have parallels with the seemingly backward looking policy currently being pursued in the United Kingdom. Firstly, the influx and rapid spread of Christianity via Portuguese missionaries and traders was deeply unpopular… in this sense, the fear of  foreign religion and its unfamiliar cultural baggage does I think have parallels in Britain with the widely reported anxiety that has been expressed over refugees and immigration. This ‘tribalism’, this clan culture definitely echoes the anti-christian propaganda of the Shogunate in the  seventeenth century. Nationalism and religious intolerance go hand in hand and never more so than at this period of Japanese history.

For those wishing to pull up the drawbridge in Great Britain, the sign board illustrated below and translated here is a chilling reminder of where isolationism can lead…


Anti Foreigner (Christian) Sign 1711

The Christian faith has been prohibited for a long time. If you catch a suspicious person, you should send notice to the authorities. As a reward, we offer 500 silver coins for the accuser against a Priest, 300 silver coins for the accuser against a Religious Brother, 300 silver coins for the accuser against a Returner, 100 silver coins for the accuser against a Christian.
     We issue orders as mentioned. Even if the accuser is a Christian, he will receive the 500 silver coins according to the one accused. If the fact that you had hidden a Bateren, Iruman, etc. is revealed, the Nanushi (village headman) of your village, and your relatives, indeed your whole clan will be punished.
    June,  Shotoku Gan-nen (1711)

The Shogunate undoubtedly used the policy to shore up its own position within Japanese society. A more subtle parallel can be made here perhaps. There is a sense, isn’t there, that the status quo, the establishment, is vulnerable to new ideas, new relationships, new values. To cut off from the wider and indeed the local international scene is to retrench and develop mainly those values that have supported the established position in the past and reinforce that which is trusted and familiar.


How Japanese Viewed Europeans… Yoshitora From 1860

The policy was successful for those families that ruled Japan at that time and throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The rest of the world was moving on though and leaving the vibrant and brilliant culture of Japan far behind. True, Japan created and evolved an intense and jewel-like indigenous culture that remains a sparkling and breathtaking gem… its influence, as this blog has pointed out so many times, on modernism in architecture, painting and the arts is overwhelming. The price for that delicate jewel though was an economy that rotted away in a medieval society of haves and have-nots. Bloated samurai class families enjoyed vast wealth whilst the poor and the middle class slaved for a pittance and were punitively punished for dissent. By the 1860’s, revolution was inevitable and Japan emerged blinking into the glare of the modern world… turning its back on its own culture and becoming the strange bed-fellow of the west that it is today. Surely, there are lessons that we in the United Kingdom can learn from this as we embark on a perilous and unknown course of isolationism ourselves.


Kuniteru II.  Western Locomotive

Out of interest, the translation below is is the text of the Seclusion Edict of 1836… let’s hope it doesn’t come to this.

No Japanese ship, nor any native of Japan, shall presume to go out of the country; whoever acts contrary to this, shall die, and the ship with the crew and goods aboard shall be sequestered until further orders. All persons who return from abroad shall be put to death. Whoever discovers a Christian priest shall have a reward of 400 to 500 sheets of silver and for every Christian in proportion. All Portuguese and Spanish who propagate the doctrine of the Catholics, or bear this scandalous name, shall be imprisoned in the common jail of the town. The whole race of the Portuguese with their mothers, nurses and whatever belongs to them, shall be banished to Macao. Whoever presumes to bring a letter from abroad, or to return after he hath been banished, shall die with his family; also whoever presumes to intercede for him, shall be put to death. No nobleman nor any soldier shall be suffered to purchase anything from the foreigner.

Posted in Brexit, Floating World, Japanese Art Gallery, Japanese Christians, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Meiji Art, Sakoku, senso-e, Tokugawa Clan, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, Yokohama | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kinbaku Part II – Seiu Ito and his Rope Bondage Fetish

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Drawing by Seiu Ito

Back in 2012 I wrote a piece on Kinbaku, having spent an evening with the very charming Midori, an exponent of sexual bondage and rope play… we had dinner. At the time, I wasn’t really familiar with the art of the Japanese painter and photographer Seiu Ito, but I have recently been looking at some of his work and recognise that he occupies the link between modern rope bondage and the art of Taiso Yoshitoshi which was discussed in the 2012 article. For a brief history  of Japanese rope art and modern rope bondage, I suggest you follow the link to that article. The drawing above shows what a talented draftsman Ito was, but I have been very struck by some of his woodblock prints which have recently been illustrated online.



Seiu Ito ‘Kinbaku – The Art of Bondage’




Seiu Ito ‘Kinbaku – The Art of Bondage’

The two prints illustrated above show Ito’s debt to Yoshitoshi and to certain tropes of traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In these prints and drawings there is concealed a persistent Japanese fear of strong and emotional women. The dishevelled hair and the facial expressions of the women in Ito’s work also echo the drawing of ‘demon women‘ popular in the late nineteenth century. This was a period, after the Meiji revolution, when women appeared in popular woodblock prints as both strong, independent and powerful… sometimes positive and benevolent, sometimes negative and malign. Of course, I’m thinking here not only of Yoshitioshi’s various demon women but also of Kunichika’s great series of 1876, 36 Good and Evil Beauties.


Kunichika ’36 Good and Evil Beauties’ 1876

Ito’s work is from a far darker place than Kunichika’s perhaps, mild anxiety about liberated Edo. Ito himself worked as a photographer and illustrator and is perhaps best known for his images of bondage which used his wife as a model. Famously, Ito had her suspended upside down whilst pregnant in order to imitate the pose of Yoshitoshi’s famous print of the The Lonely House, from September 1885. It is really a privilege to be able to show an extremely rare copy of the photograph that Ito took of his wife in the early 1920’s next to the print that inspired it… (and a whole genre of sexual fetish), a first I think. I am indebted to the private collection of kinbaku from which the extraordinary find originates.

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Sahara Kise by Ito 1923


Yoshitoshi, The Lonely House





















There is no doubt that the Japanese have long ago perfected the art of rope tying. The fetishisation of the practice though is clearly the work of the little known illustrator Seiu Ito. His debt in turn is to the great innovations of Yoshitoshi who preceded him by several decades. I am keen to assemble still more of this story… it seems that Ito was also at the very root of a great raft of early twentieth century fetish images – not just the  extension of Japanese tying (Hojo Jutsu for those interested), but also genres as diverse as sailor suits and busty schoolgirls. Do look out for ‘Kinbaku Part Three’ in the near future !


Posted in Hell Courtesan, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kinbaku, Kunichika, Seiu Ito, ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, yoshitoshi | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Kunichika & The Meiji

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Kunichika. Sawamura Tosho as Karukaya Doshin 1869

May the 20th sees the launch of a new show at the Toshidama Gallery. The exhibition looks at the work of Toyohara Kunichika, (1835-1900), and his fellow artists. There are some very fine prints indeed on show and for sale, not least a simply phenomenal print by the artist Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847 – 1915) from his finest series, Patterns of Flowers (Hana Moyo) of 1897.

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Kiyochika. Patterns of Flowers 1897

The print appears to be more or less unknown (completely so in fact) in the literature. The leading Kiyochika scholar Henry D Smith II has this to say on the series:

All of the triptychs in this series (ten are known) feature the unusual composition of enlarged figures or busts of women against a distant background depicting customs of a particular historical era. The term ‘patterns’ (moyo) would seem to refer both to the elegant designs of the costumes on the foreground figures and to the background tableaux. The ‘flowers’ of the series “Flower Patterns” are the beautiful women themselves… The titles of the ten prints refer to specific eras of the Tokugawa period…

KIYOCHIKA – Artist of Meiji Japan, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1988 pp. 98-99.


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There are the ten known prints, and this exquisite print makes an eleventh.
For the print itself, a riotous array of panels of colour and pattern collide across the surface. In true ukiyo-e tradition (and there’s lots here), the face, exquisitely drawn like a noh mask, emerges from the geometrics of the fan and the panels of fabric. Part portrait, part still life of a Zouonna mask lying on a pile of kimono, this extraordinary image partly defies description. The inset panel, in complete distinction to the main piece shows a group of Edo towns people. The subject matter of the print is unknown. This is a terrific series, the prints in it  are simply stunning pieces of work in their outrageous, cinematic scope and design and in the near miraculous way that Kiyochika weaves a reverence for the great history and traditions of Japan and the challenges of the new, modern state. Not only that, when looking at design and composition in the west, one has to wait decades before anything as bold as these designs becomes visible.


Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907

It seems also to predict the experiments in synthetic cubism made by Picasso and Modigliani in pictures such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from 1907. These superb prints not only look back to the glories of Edo and Tokugawa art, but anticipate the revolutionary designs of western applied arts in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Kunichika and the Meiji is at Toshidama Japanese Prints from 20th May – 23rd June 2016.


Posted in Demoiselles d'Avignon, Edo, Floating World, geisha, Japanese Eyebrows, japanese hair styling, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kiyochika, Kunichika, Meiji Art, Okubi-e, Picasso, Toshidama Gallery., ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, utagawa | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Print a Day – Hiroshige’s Mandarin Ducks


Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) Kacho-e of Mandarin Ducks (Oshidori) Swimming Among Water Grasses, Chuban. 1830’s.

This delightful print shows a pair of Oshidori, or Mandarin ducks swimming together in a swirl of contented harmony; unsurprising, as in Japanese (and Chinese, where it originated) culture, these ducks are emblematic of marital bliss.  During the breeding season, they don’t flock together, preferring to pair up, not associating with other ducks; giving rise to the Japanese expression for a young couple in love – “like Mandarin ducks playing in the water” (oshidori fufu).  Whether or not they mate for life, as is popularly believed, is another matter.  Some pairs renew their bonds annually, some find a new partner every year.


Mandarin Ducks

Thanks to their reputation as emblems of constancy, the Mandarin duck appears in every area of Japanese culture – thoughtfully expanded upon by Jerry Vedger in his blogpost on Oshidori.  Most notable is the 1904 story by Lafcadio  Hearn, in which a hungry hunter named Sonjo kills a male Mandarin, despite the risk of bad luck befalling him.  That night he dreams of a beautiful woman weeping and lamenting in his room, and so troubled is he, that he returns to the spot where he shot the drake.  There, the female spots him, swims directly towards him, and “with her beak, she suddenly tore open her body” and died.  Sonjo instantly became a priest.

The killing of the equally famously loyal hornbilled puffins elicits similar stories, most specifically in the tale of Uto Yasukata. In a forthcoming exhibition, Toshidama Gallery will be showing this lovely print by Hirosada  of an actor as a hornbilled puffin – who could equally be a Mandarin duck.  They seem to have been conflated rather as symbols of loyalty and love beyond the grave.


Hirosada, Uto Yasukata

Posted in Hirosada, Hiroshige, Kacho-e, Oshidori, ukiyo-e | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hikimayu…Fashion Trends of the Heian Period

Kunichika_36_Good__Evil_Beauties_Osame.jpgKunichika (1835-1900) Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties: Shirabyoshi Dancer on a Boat, 1876.

I love this series of prints by Kunichika. It’s called 36 Good and Evil Beauties and is one of his finest series of woodblock prints. Each print, fairly obviously, illustrates a woman from Japanese history, famous for virtuous or wicked acts. What is so significant about this series and others by Kunichika, Yoshitoshi and their colleagues, is the appearance of women as the subjects of the prints rather than merely as objects. Kunichika presents women as individuals and not archetypes. This is at variance with the traditional bijin portraits of pliable or available females and chimes with Yoshitoshi’s later series on similar themes such as Thirty-two Aspects of Customs and Manners from 1888.


Yoshitoshi, Muraoka. 1887

But this post is not so much about the 1880’s as much as the fashions of the seventeenth century and earlier. How striking in this and other portraits of high born women are the shaved eyebrows and the strange painted ones that replace them, so high up on the forehead. This practice is called Hikimayu, and it dates from the eighth century, when it was adopted in Japan from its origins in China. By the twelfth century women had started wearing extremely elaborate costumes, painting their faces more thickly, and painting eyebrows as ovals or smudges on their foreheads. From the seventeenth century onward the practice became restricted to married women only and latterly, only after the birth of the first child. This practice, along with the blackening of the teeth, called ohaguro did carry on in Edo until it was actually banned in 1870 by law, by the modernising Meiji government, all too aware that they might attract ridicule and contempt from their Christian, trading partners.

I am terribly keen on Izumo Kamiki, a female student at the True Cross Academy, from the successful manga series  Blue Exorcist. She is born with naturally archaic eyebrows of the Heian period, as can be seen from the picture below.


Izumo Kamiki from Blue Exorcist

Posted in Floating World, geisha, Hikimayu, Japanese Eyebrows, japanese hair styling, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kunichika, Meiji Art, ukiyo-e, ukiyo-e art, yoshitoshi | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment