The intricate art of ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints, depicts the gruesome and the eerie in vivid, gorgeous detail.
By Sarah E. Fensom
The legends and imagery of Japan have long been haunted by ghosts and stained with blood. Ukiyo-e, an art form that emerged early in the Edo period (1600–1867), was certainly not the first to chronicle these phenomena, but during its peak in the 19th century it became one of the most widely viewed and collected—and still is today. Literally meaning “pictures of the floating world,” ukiyo-e were mass-produced woodblock-printed images that were originally used as book illustrations before coming into their own as single-sheet prints or posters for kabuki theater. The phantasmagoric and gruesome were not the only sorts of images open to depiction—actors, courtesans, the board game go, sumo wrestlers and landscapes were all popular subject matter. However, with one foot planted in the most ancient of Japanese legends and the other on the threshold of manga and the gore and samurai films of the 20th century, these examples of the art form bear a highly detailed, almost cinematic quality that seems especially timeless.
“There have always been ghost tales and warrior tales in Japanese literature—not unlike Grimm’s fairy tales—even before the advent of ukiyo-e. But maybe they get a little more grotesque, vivid, and colorful,” says Joan Mirviss of Joan B. Mirviss Ltd., a New York gallery specializing in Japanese fine art. The medieval illustrated scrolls such as Chojugiga (“The Animal Scrolls”) and Yobutsu Kurabe (“The Penis Competition”) were the satirical works of a mischievous Buddhist monk named Toba, and precursors to the ukiyo-e tradition. During the 17th century warai-ban (“The Laughing Books”) and makura-e (“pillow pictures”) gained popularity, and the 12-part “Tokiwa Scrolls,” which are believed to have been painted by Iwasa Matabei in the early 17th century, were dripping with images of blood-soaked violence—complete with depictions of murder and female nudity. Rare for their time, they are considered by many to have laid the foundation for chimidoro-e (“blood-stained pictures”) or muzan-e (“atrocity pictures”), the violent scenes that reached their height of popularity as ukiyo-e prints in the 19th century. Prints by Tokoyuni, a master of ukiyo-e who specialized in kabuki actors, featured images of Lustmord in his early 19th-century shunga (erotic prints) series, Kaichu Kagami and Ikuyo Monogatari, and the theme would remain prevalent throughout the art form’s popularity.
Tokoyuni’s pupil at the Utagawa school (perhaps the finest woodblock print school of its time), Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who produced work in many genres throughout the 19th century, became well known for his images of samurai and legendary heroes, even garnering the name “musha-e Kuniyoshi” or “warrior print Kuniyoshi.” In series like Thirty-six Famous Battles (circa 1848), depicting violence and war, and Master Blades of Death (1847–48), honoring Japan’s greatest sword-makers, Kuniyoshi’s images of carnage were widely viewed. In a print with a matching preparatory drawing from a series of the Suikoden (a Chinese Robin Hood-type figure) by the artist, we can see not only his intricate technique but also the emotional nuance Kuniyoshi would give to his figures. Though the man in the image is holding the severed head of his unfaithful wife, whom he himself has beheaded, there is more depth to his facial expression than sheer maliciousness. “In Kuniyoshi battle scenes, or even scenes where one sees a head on a pike or platter, the mood is subdued rather than glorified,” says Veronica Miller, the director of Egenolf Gallery, which is based in Burbank, Calif., and specializes in ukiyo-e. Kuniyoshi treated his warriors with a dignity and restraint that belied their brutishness. With the rise of interest in Confucianism and Taoism in the late Edo period, images of warriors and avenging spirits were considered parabolic—they taught lessons through violence, as morality tales so often do.
On the other hand, some 19th-century ukiyo-e artists focused on capturing the glorified goriness of kabuki scenes. These pictures were known as shibai-e or kabuki-e. Kunichika was a print artist who garnered a reputation not only for his kabuki-e but also for often being found drunk backstage at the theater. His purported last words were “Since I am tired of painting portraits of people of this world, I will paint portraits of the King of hell and all his devils,” a promise that, if realized, would have surely found an eager audience. Hirose Kinzo, who became known as Ekin (meaning “picture gold”), reproduced kabuki scenes of heads being cut off and guts spilling across the theater floor (all the result of various visual tricks, not actual bloodshed) in folding screens, a form of print known as byobu-e. Through his lively sense of color and drama, Ekin could capture a great amount of action from the stage in just one image, in a style that brings to mind the collaged frames of American 20th century comic illustrator Jack Kirby.
However, Kuniyoshi’s student, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, had a predilection for depicting gore in print that was unrivaled. During the 1860s, Yoshitoshi released series after series of gore and horror-centric works that could capture the public’s imagination and tell an entire story with one narrative-driven scene. His series, Eimei Nijuhasshuku or “28 Famous Murders with Verse,” which he produced with fellow ukiyo-e artist Ochiai Yoshiiku between 1866 and 1868, pushed the muzan-e genre to unprecedented extremes—with pages upon pages of bloody revenge plots, ritual suicides, torture, and legendary rivalries. The earliest edition of this work even featured a special technique that somehow rendered the red pigment with a sticky sheen, as if actual blood had spilled from the character and dried on the page. Yoshitoshi, though incredibly prolific, suffered a somewhat mysterious mental breakdown during the latter part of his career and died in 1891 from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 53. Due to the advent of photography and the influx of Western influence in Japan, for the most part the art of ukiyo-e died with Yoshitoshi, its last master. The violence of his prints, was not simply a symptom of his taste for the macabre; rather, his style hinged heavily on the tumultuous political upheaval and cultural changes of his time. “Yoshitoshi witnessed one of the civil war battles fought during the Meiji Restoration. Modern armaments had arrived, along with Western ideas and aniline dyes for the prints,” says Miller. “He was also of a much more unhinged and extreme temperament than Kuniyoshi, so his over-the-top imagery also had to do with his more extreme emotional makeup. Yoshitoshi I think of as a tortured soul who went in and out of lucidity, a bit like van Gogh.”
Yoshitoshi’s last printed series, Shinkei Sanjurokutem, or “New forms of 36 Ghosts,” was so freakishly popular that the blocks from which it was printed wore out. The seventh image of the series depicts a beautiful woman whose body is draped in a lavender and pink dress that completely obscures her limbs. She is, in fact, the spirit of a cherry tree that has morphed into the form of a courtesan to lure an evil man who brags about his plans to cut the tree down. When he approaches her, she changes back into the form of the tree and hits him with its branch.
Like the scenes of warriors, most prints depicting Japanese ghost stories have a morality element to them. “Ghosts were accepted entities, of course, and ghost stories were told as a way to keep cool on hot summer nights, from the resulting shivers,” says Miller. “Plays involving the supernatural were also a staple chestnut of the kabuki theatre, kabuki being the engine driving print production during most of the Edo period. One often sees actors portraying magicians or ghosts, so this reinforced the cultural acceptance of the supernatural as part of the everyday fabric of life.” Though the ghosts, or yurei, prevalent in ukiyo-e were sometimes male—either fallen warriors who could not remove themselves from the events of their battles, or onryo, ghosts out to avenge a crime against them in life—the female ghost is perhaps one of the most enduring in supernatural ukiyo-e and Japanese horror culture as a whole. She could take many forms: a cat-ghost vampire, a seductress luring a living being into a posthumous affair, the yuki-onna or snow-lady, the ubume or mother ghost who returns from death to care for her children, or simply a yurei out to seek vengeance of her own, usually on her murderer. The latter is often rendered with black unkempt hair, a pale face, and white burial gown, as in Maruyama Okyo’s 1750 painting of the ghost of Oyuki, the purported first depiction of the female yurei in ukiyo-e, and in popular culture through her many re-imaginings in Japanese ghost films like Ringu (“The Ring”) and Ju-On (“The Grudge”).
In Kuniyoshi’s 1847 triptych Stage play of ancient legend: Apparition of the Monstrous Cat at the Old Temple, we see the hoary, looming figure of the cat ghost, another popular yurei. About the popularity of these figures Miller says, “There is a global love for images of cat witches, dragons, tengu, demons (oni), shape-shifting foxes, magicians and ghosts, among others. The Japanese may have a somewhat stronger preference for images of tanuki (badger-like beings with enormous testicles), or the nue, a composite beast unique to Japan, or foxfires.” Anthropomorphized forms were not just popular in ukiyo-e because of their place in Japanese mythology, but also because of their usefulness in getting around censors during the strict Edo period. All images were supposed to go through a process of government approval, and artists were not allowed to show historical events that had transpired less than three centuries before. Kuniyoshi would dodge censorship by depicted actors as frogs, or giving historical figures the names of the kabuki actors in a print’s inscription.
The intricacies of ukiyo-e were developed through a precise process that required three artisans—the artist, a wood carver and a printer. Though the prints were the vision of the artist, “it is truly impossible for one human being to be good enough at all three specialties to get the kind of quality of woodblock printing that the Japanese brought to its apogee,” says Miller. Not to forget, the Japanese characters were hand-carved backwards on the block, and without modern machinery or lighting. Still, ukiyo-e was a commercial art form, and artisans produced works based on the subject matters that publishers and the public demanded. That prints of the macabre, the supernatural and the grotesque were so frequently designed and distributed is for the most part a greater reflection of 19th century Japanese tastes than of the agenda of the artists. And in terms of shock value, as with the visual cultural of any society, once a boundary was bulldozed, there was immediately another on the horizon to tear through.
The influence of Edo-period ukiyo-e artists like Hiroshige and Hokusai, who worked primarily with landscapes, can be seen on many Western artists from Whistler to Van Gogh and Monet. As for fellow Japanese artists, says Mirviss, “you can’t look at Yoshitomo Nara or Takashi Murakami without thinking of ukiyo-e—the blackout line filled with solid blocks of color. The whole manga tradition is quite literally taken from that. It’s a linear development, not incidental.” Manga (literally “irresponsible pictures”) is the tradition of Japanese comics and illustrations that can trace their beginnings to the 18th century but gained an international following during the 20th century. From manga’s inception it has taken stylistic cues from the bold lines, saturated colors, and daring subject matter of ukiyo-e artists like Yoshitoshi, Kuniyishi and Hokusai, whose books Hokusai Manga date to 1814–34 and feature drawings from his sketchbooks. Like ukiyo-e, much of manga’s best-loved images fall under sub-genres dealing with violence, erotica or horror. Miller calls Kuniyoshi “the grandfather of manga. His imagination was completely unbound—it had no limits. Some of the works that appeal the most strongly to the modern viewer and seem a century ahead of their time did not sell well, and so are sadly very rare.”
Other than what you can get in a comic-book store, the easiest prints to find today are those of kabuki actors, because they were the most frequently depicted in their own time. “When ukiyo-e first developed it was a mirror of the kabuki world—the first prints were portrayals of actors on stage,” says Mirviss, who insists that more than subject matter, when collecting ukiyo-e it all comes down to “condition, condition, condition.” Artists were using all-natural pigments to color their works, especially before the introduction of chemical dyes in the mid-19th century, which has led to discoloration and running caused by sun exposure over the years. In the case of an artist as late as Yoshitoshi, this is less of a factor. Acquiring single prints is possible for a new collector—with many boasting a modest price tag of $1,500 to $2,500, often making ukiyo-e the preferred gateway drug into Japanese fine art. However, in light of a 150-year collecting tradition, works by the great printers of the Edo period—Utamaro, Sharaku, Kiyonaga and other late 18th-century masters are becoming scarcer worldwide.
This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Lucid Dreams & Nightmares.”