Male Tragedy in Japanese Woodblock Prints

Kunishoshi. 24 Paragons of Filial Piety. 1842

Kunishoshi. 24 Paragons of Filial Piety. 1842

Well, I guess that it’s deeply unfashionable right now to talk of the male struggle, the tragedy of the male and so on – there’s a contemporary trend to upbraid men for being… ‘pale, male and stale’. The fact is that outside of the modish world of micro-bloggers and political agitation, there remains huge pressures on men of all generations; those men, that is, who are not aggressive misogynists, or political heavy-weights. Those pressures to achieve, to provide, to live up to expectations of success in what remains nearly everywhere in the world, a patriarchal society.

Perhaps now more than ever, as we tiptoe into the darkness with a lantern or candle, men fear the prospect of mass unemployment, economic disaster and sexual failure. These are the very themes that the current show at the Toshidama Gallery explores in nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. In the interest of balance of course, the next show will  look at how women cope with the rage and the pointless waste of life that are perhaps the natural consequence of too much testosterone.

Kunisada. Battle Tales of Han and Chu. 1827

Kunisada. Battle Tales of Han and Chu. 1827

Japanese prints of the eighteenth century revelled in the certainties of a passive and generally untroubled future… the ‘Floating World’, as it has come to be known. There were few military conflicts, relative economic stability and an ordered, if not very fair, feudal society. Come the nineteenth century and, simplistic as it may be, conflict and social uncertainty usurped the calm ordered life of Japan.


Utamaro – Shunga Panel

As a consequence, eighteenth century images of men are generally, passive… more often than not sexual, or literary. Nineteenth century images tend to be dramatic, bloody… gory in fact, and feature ordinary people engaged in anti-social, desperate domestic dramas… look at the picture of Gonpachi, a man who turned to crime and then murder to save his lover from a life of prostitution, facing his death, cornered on a raft in the middle of the river. Or tragic Danshichi, the hapless young shopkeeper who murders his father-in-law in frustration and rage.

Yoshitaki, Onoe Tamizo II as Gonpachi

Yoshitaki, Onoe Tamizo II as Gonpachi 1860’s

These desperate men faced an uncertain future, much like men of today… . Society still struggles to express compassion and love towards men and men also struggle to experience and express the full range of feelings… . The picture at the top of the page shows the now forgotten Hitsu-no-Saisho Haruhira rescuing his father who has been punished by the Emperor by being made to act as a lighthouse… this story, as are all of them, is apocryphal. There is here in the retelling some of the now familiar friction between China and Japan… Roger Keyes devotes a page to this print and a later version by Yoshitoshi, in his book, The Male Journey in Japanese Prints.  Keyes comments:

Hitsu no Saisho Haruhira visits the Chinese Emperor’s court and discovers that his father, a former envoy, has been tortured and driven insane. The emperor humiliates the Japanese more by making the father sit by his side with a candle burning on his head as he greets the Japanese legation.

How do men find a way in this difficult world to remain kind and compassionate, understanding and loving… Roger Keyes suggests that these moving prints show us a way to become, (as Robbie Williams might say) a better man.

The Male Tragedy in Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery until February 17th. Do please join our mailing list and receive discounts on all purchases.


Posted in Floating World, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, Male Tragedy, Male Tragedy in Japanese Prints, Shunga, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized, Utamaro, Yoshitaki | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Escape in Japanese Woodblock Prints


Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) Bando Mitsugoro III as Daihanji no Kiyosumi in the play Imoseyama Onna Teikin, 1818

It’s the function of art, isn’t it, to offer some escape… maybe to make a space to slip into that leaves aside the stresses and the anxieties of the now. That was certainly the intention of ukiyo-e… (Japanese woodblock prints) the word itself offers a doorway to a world without care and worry –

It was the seventeenth century writer, Ryo Asai, who defined the idea of the Floating World that is the subject of so much Japanese art in his novel, Ukiyo-e Monogatari (“Tales of the Floating World”, 1660)….

“Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…”

The sentiment imbues so many Japanese prints with its longing and sensual pleasure, its suggestion of escape. Looking through a batch of woodblock prints for the current sale show at the Toshidama Gallery, I am struck by the sense of otherness and literal escape that runs through the selection, however randomly. In the Toyokuni at the top of the article, there is a river… a literal route out of the page! The water flows north, south and the figure of Bando Mitsugoro III as Daihanji no Kiyosumi stares wistfully at its buoyant motion. Water, of course has always been one of the great visual motifs of Japanese art. Below is a print by Chikanobu of ladies in the Chiyoda Palace gazing wistfully at the freedom implicit in the leaping carp,


Toyohara Chikanobu (1838 – 1912) Carp Jumping out of the Pond under a Wisteria Tree at the Chiyoda Palace (Chiyoda Ooku Ohanami), 1894

In Hiroshige’s ducks, pictured below, there is the explicit belief that in nature and through nature we can escape the cares of the world… it is intentional, you see, that the ducks are like Ryo Asai’s gourd… refusing to be disheartened, floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world… Escape need not be physical, by contemplation, by forgetting, by losing ourselves in an object of contemplation… the function of the simple artwork. This was an idea promulgated by the great Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai, whom Hiroshige was intentionally following here.


Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) Kacho-e of Mandarin Ducks Swimming Among Water Grasses

Elsewhere there are stories of literal flight… of people escaping from danger or fear, in the print below for example, by Ginko we can see of one of the most famous scenes from Japanese history: Tokiwa Gozen and her children, one of whom is the great Samurai and hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune setting out in the snow. The setting is the twelfth century and we see Lady Tokiwa fleeing through a snowstorm during the Heiji Rebellion, protecting her children beneath her robes. This scene is often depicted in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and this print mirrors one of the same subject by Kuniyoshi half a century earlier.


Ginko Adachi (active 1874 – 1897) A Mirror of Famous Women in Old and Modern Times: Tokiwa Gozen, 1887

Sometimes, water… the great motif for freedom does the opposite. In the print below of The Five Festivals (Go Sekku no Uchi): Satsuki by Kunisada for example, the figures of two warriors are imprisoned by water, the rain becoming like iron bars and only the sadness of the descending bird offers us hope of escape.


Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) The Five Festivals (Go Sekku no Uchi): Satsuki, c 1854


The Christmas sale runs for five weeks at the Toshidama Gallery.

Posted in Floating World, Hiroshige, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kunisada, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pesky Catfish – A Tsunami Averted


Kunichika, Nakamura Shikan with a Namazu, (catfish) 1866.

A 6.9 magnitude earthquake troubled Japan on Tuesday, again off the coast of Fukushima, in a grim reminder of the horrible disaster of 2011. The quake was felt as far away as Tokyo and the country braced itself for the potential repeat of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that had caused such devastation five years before. Mercifully, there was no ensuing disaster and there was no tsunami, no flooding to homes and towns and subsequently no loss of life.


Fires Following the Ansei Earthquake of 1855.

Japan is no stranger to natural disaster and earthquakes are perhaps one of the most devastating events that can befall a city. In previous centuries, Edo (now Tokyo), was plagued by earthquakes that caused destruction to the fragile straw and paper houses by disturbing open fires, lanterns, cooking stoves and other vulnerable objects. The subsequent fires would spread from home to home and street to street, destroying whole areas of the city with tragic loss of life and property. In the catastrophic Ansei Earthquake of October 2nd 1852, 7000 lives were lost and the devastation is clearly visible in the broadsheet woodblock print above. Today, the fear is of tsunami and its effects on low lying areas of dense population and of course on the potential damage to the nuclear power station at Fukushima. The woodblock print though clearly shows the horrors caused by the quick spread of fire through closely packed houses.


Kunisada. Ichikawa Danzo Subduing a Giant Catfish. 1820

Like any nation, superstition in Japan about earthquakes was rife. The current show at the Toshidama Gallery, is devoted to the 1908 textbook by Henri Joly, Legend in Japanese Art.

Here is Joly on the Japanese legend of the catfish:

The earthquake fish or NAMAZU or JISHINUWO. This is the catfish to which earthquakes are due; the creature has a body like an eel, a large flattened head, and long feelers on both sides of its mouth, it lies with its tail under the provinces of Shimosa and Hidachi, and when angry, wriggles about, shaking the foundations of Japan. A large stone rests on its back, the Kaname Ishi, protruding in the garden of the temple of the God KASHIMA  DAIMIOJIN (Takemika Tsuchino Mikoto). This stone goes deep into the bowels of the earth, it is the rivet (Kaname) which binds the world together: when KASHIMA and KADORI MIOJIN came from Heaven to subdue the world, Kashima thrust his sword  through the earth, the mighty blade shrank and became the Kaname Ishi which Kashima alone can move. Kadori Miojinis Futsu Nuchino Mikoto, he has a gourd, and with that gourd and the help of Kadori, this God keeps the fish quiet. Mitsukuni, Daimio of Mito, grandson of Tokugawa leyasu, with a Saint Thomas bent of mind, had the earth dug around the Kaname Ishi, but his men could not get at the base of it. Kadori and his gourd, hugging the Namazu, is sometimes a subject for artistic treatment. His efforts are little thought of if one believes the proverbial sentence : A Gourd against a Namazu, (meaning useless effort) alluding to the slipping of the gourd on the fish’s skin.


Yoshitaki Oni Demon and Catfish 1871

Unfortunately it seems that neither gourd nor Kadori are much protection against what we now know are the forces of nature. We can only hope that the recent seismological activity off Japan’s eastern coast quietens of its own accord and these current anxieties are brought to an end.




Posted in Asian Art, Earthquake, Floating World, Ichikawa Danjuro, Japanese Art, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunisada, Namazu-e, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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