Japanese Art and Ukiyo-e: A Tale Of Two Cities between Edo and Osaka
Toshihide, The Assassination of Kawzu Sukiyasu
It might be convenient to characterise the the two great cultural centres of nineteenth century Japan as being in some way in competition, but this would be too easy and not really accurate. Two schools existed, not only in the production of ukiyo prints but also in the theatre – the kabuki and the puppet – stages and to some extent in the literature and philosophical circles too. The relationship of the two cities was cordial, and as we shall see, they shared the same interests and there was a rich dialogue of ideas and personnel throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It might be helpful to imagine the two centres of British pop culture in the nineteen sixties – Liverpool and London, as analogous… a shared cultural landscape mediated by cultural and economic circumstances.It’s maybe useful to use the name Kamigata to describe the Osaka school as a whole – Kamigata is the region that includes not only Osaka but also the surrounding region and Kyoto. Kamigata-e (prints of the region) languished in obscurity for centuries, mainly due to inaccessibility to the western collectors who categorised, dealt in and heirarchised Japanese woodblock prints from the nineteenth century onwards. Almost no academic discussion on Osaka school artists prior to the last thirty years exists and Edo culture (now Tokyo) dominated and still dominates the appreciation and taxonomy of the ukiyo-e scene. Wider appreciation of Osaka and the complex relationship between the two centres is recent and reveals not only new works and new artists of outstanding quality and brilliance but a more interesting and deeper awareness of Japanese culture as a whole before the great opening of its borders in 1864.
Kunichika, Bunraku Puppeteers
The truths of this history run quite against the conventions of standard academic thought. It is apparent that Kamigata originated the bunraku
(puppet) tradition, the kabuki
theatre as a popular genre and the wide-scale production and appreciation of woodblock prints. Though long overshadowed by Edo’s vast output and budgets, Osaka might now well be seen as a creative forge from which much of what has hitherto been considered exclusively Edo culture was formed.
oshitaki, Ichikawa Udanji as Monkey & Traveller
Let’s start with bunraku, the Japanese puppet theatre
- magical, inventive and captivating, it has always been Osaka that has dominated the scene. As a craze, bunraku
was established in Osaka from the mid eighteenth century onwards. Huge crowds flocked to day long performances of these extraordinary lifelike marionettes, suspending disbelief, perhaps aware that in Japanese culture, puppets and dolls have been traditional conduits to the gods. Puppet theatre spread from Osaka to Edo where it obtained huge popularity in the early nineteenth century. We are showing a fascinating triptych by Kunichika of a puppet performance from the 1880’s
(pictured above). In this case we are looking at the memory of this art, the puppets and puppeteers here are performing in a play about a bunraku
stage, but there is nevertheless a link evident here between the event, its importance to theatre, its commemoration in kabuki
and finally its representation in an Edo print, long after it had fallen out of favour with audiences. From these beginnings developed the taste for real actors in full scale dramas and Osaka once again saw the key developments of style in the kabuki
theatre. Osaka’s great drama scene is very different to the brash, cosmopolitan scene of Edo and it is here, at the end of the eighteenth century that we can see the very different characters of the two centres emerging. Osaka was a city of amateurs and autodidacts. In the theatre, patronage of individual actors and performances were essential to the survival of a much smaller and coterie driven scene. Edo boasted huge public theatres and superstar performers who could command comparatively enormous fees. This delicate sensibility quickly established itself in the style of acting as well as the performances and the nature of the stage and its arrangement.
Kunisada, A Contest of Magical Scenes
Osaka kabuki is essentially a more naturalistic style of performance and as we see, this is reflected in the prints themselves and in the subject matter and how it is portrayed. The theatre scene in Edo by the turn of the nineteenth century was a vast industry, huge audiences, superstar performances and sophisticated and lavish costumes and sets and lengthy, complex narratives. By necessity, the Osaka scene was smaller and had a quite different sensibility, prefering the wagoto style as opposed to the aggressive aragato style of Edo favoured by the Danjuro clan of actors. Wagato style is softer, more emotional, more naturalistic; and whilst there was a great traffic of actors from Edo to Osaka and back, generally it was very difficult for kabuki actors to adapt from one form to another, leading to greater and greater dissonance between the two theatre styles. We can see this difference clearly in the prints of the period.
The print by Yoshitaki of a traveller and a monkey shows just the kind of delicate sensibilities typical of the Osaka stage. The scale, poses and gestures and the expressions are restrained, there is no stage furniture and the monkey is portrayed naturalistically – as seen on the stage with the face mask and socks of the actor clearly drawn. Compare that to this kabuki print by Kunisada from 1864
(below). Here we see an actor, superbly portrayed but as if in reality, we see the character he is portraying and not the actor on the stage. He seems really to float on the magic scroll, the paraphernalia of the stage is missing from the scene and we are struck by his extraordinary face, his eyes, crossed in the mie
of the climax and the strange attenuated hand gestures and positions of his limbs. The Edo print is a bravura piece, the Osaka by contrast is all restraint and modesty, despite the lavish colours and sparkling mica.
Comparing the two sides of the show, we notice that there are more genre represented in the Edo selection. Kabuki still dominated much of Edo print production during the nineteenth century but there were big audiences for musha-e (warrior prints), from artists such as Kuniyoshi whose entire career was floated on the outstanding popularity of his early combat studies. Landscape, though not represented in the show is very nearly absent from the Osaka canon; in Edo however the enthusiasm for travel following the easing of regional restrictions gave artists such as Hiroshige a vast audience of collectors and the curious, eager to see a world outside of the city. There were a few attempts to mimic this trend in Osaka but they all failed. Osaka remained resolutely an industry of actor portraits with some rare exceptions.
There were many differences in the society and the make up of the print publishing business. There were very few printers in the Kamigata area compared with those in Edo. Those that there were were often amateur or small private affairs and the woodblock print scene relied heavily on the patronage of small coterie societies of wealthy donors and enthusiasts. Compare that to the huge industry of publishers and the massive output by each artist and publishing house – often funded by the big theatres, and it is easy to see how the consumer was able to dictate both the quality, the economics and the volume of sales in each district.
Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden
The format too is strikingly different. Something that immediately strikes one when holding an Osaka print is the jewel like quality of the piece. The majority of Osaka prints are on the smaller, chuban format. There is no overwhelming reason for this – maybe local taste, economics, portability, but given the lavish quality of so many of the deluxe prints themselves, encrusted as they are with polished lacquer, metallic inks, mica, embossing and elaborate, rich colours, the final product has the lush quality of a printed Faberge egg. The smaller chuban format was greatly extended by long polyptych compositions. It is rare in Edo prints to come across a print of more than three sheets, whereas in Osaka a composition of four, five or more sheets is not uncommon, (interestingly, the number four was considered deeply unlucky in Edo and hence whilst common in Osaka, tetraptychs are unknown in Edo).
Edo artists fared much better following and during the Tempo reforms of the 1840’s – they were not as dependent on kabuki and were more able to play guessing games with the audience via thinly disguisedmitate - pictures that pretended to be something else. In Osaka the ban on actor prints and theatre subjects decimated the artistic community and the print scene never really recovered. Edo artists were able to reinvent the genre right up until its decline at the end of the century. As the kabuki coteries and theatre audiences declined in the Kamigata region so too did the artistic production and almost no prints were produced after the 1860’s of any value apart from the work of Yoshitaki.
Kunikazu, Oguri Monogatari
This tale of two cities is a story then, of the brash and the metropolitan city against the quiet and the considered world of the coterie. It is really important to stress that not only did Osaka give Edo much of the impetus and drive to originality, but that Edo reciprocated giving apprenticeships to most of the really fine artists of the Kamigata. Hirosada and others were long term pupils at the studio of Kunisada for example and are even commemorated on his memorial stone. Theatre apprenticeships were common in both cities with Edo performers rising up the ranks in Osaka before relocating to the metropolis.In terms of collecting, despite so many years in the dark, Osaka prints are now recognised as every bit as captivating and extraordinary as their Edo contemporaries and auction prices are beginning to reflect this. It is really a revelation to handle one of these small discreet pieces, these sensitive actor portraits that sparkle in the light, every bit as much as the great master works of Kuniyoshi or Hiroshige.
Edo/Osaka – A Tale of Two Cities is now open at Toshidama Gallery until 7th September 2012.