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[Bookmark] With Artist Shinji Tsuchimochi, is Ukiyo-e Headed Into Another Golden Age?

Shinji Tsuchimochi is an ukiyo-e artist planted solidly in the 21st century, and, like the ukiyo-e from 300 years ago, his work represents the best of the visual aesthetics of Japan.

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(Video edited by Shaun Fernando.)

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Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. Each edition introduces one overarching thought that branches off to a wide variety of themes. Our hope is for readers to find new depths and perspectives to explore and enjoy.

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Ukiyo-e pictures are some of the most “Japanese” things in Japan. Everyone in the world recognizes the bold colors and playful designs of Hokusai, for example, and the in-the-moment scenes from the daily lives of women (and sometimes men) as drawn by Kikugawa Eizan, Suzuki Harunobu, and Kitagawa Utamaro

Ukiyo-e remains a part of Japanese culture, too. A famous pizza delivery chain, for instance, uses ukiyo-e images in some of their advertisements. When people in Japan and overseas think of “wa” (“Japaneseness”), they often think in the visual language of ukiyo-e.

But what happened to the art of ukiyo-e? The woodblock printing craft and the artists who made use of that complicated network of block carvers, printers, papermakers, color-mixers, and other artisans and specialists were once a vibrant part of Edo culture. Now, ukiyo-e is studied almost exclusively as art history—a memory, and not a living artistic trade.

Shinji Tsuchimochi is here to set the record straight: ukiyo-e is alive and well. 

Thanks to Tsuchimochi, the craft may even be heading into another golden age, like the late-Edo efflorescence of creativity which produced the classic works of the past. Shinji Tsuchimochi is an ukiyo-e artist planted solidly in the 21st century, and, like the ukiyo-e from 300 years ago, his work represents the best of the visual aesthetics of Japan.

Artist Shinji Tsuchimochi (photo courtesy of Shinji Tsuchimochi.)

Overflowing with Quiet Beauty

I first encountered Shinji Tsuchimochi’s work on a cell phone. I teach a Japanese art class and the lesson for the day was about the history of Japanese painting—the Kanō School, the Takamatsuzuka tomb painting, Ito Jakuchu, Tsuguharu Foujita, and, of course, ukiyo-e

After the lesson, a student came up to the podium and asked shyly whether I had ever heard of Shinji Tsuchimochi. “No,” I said.

Then she showed me “Twilight at Nihonbashi”. I got goosebumps.

It was an ukiyo-e, but like none I had ever seen before. When I got back to my office I looked for other Tsuchimochi images and soon found a site filled with his prints. His Twitter handle said it all: “@wabisabipop”. 

Tsuchimochi’s art is serene and sentimental, but also now — iki, as old Edoites used to say for “hip” — immersed in the moment, but rising out of it at the same time. When I next found “Ginza in the Rain” I was hooked.

A woodblock for the artwork, ‘Ginza in the Rain,’ by Shinji Tsuchimochi (courtesy of the artist)
‘Ginza in the Rain,’ woodblock print, by Shinji Tsuchimochi (courtesy of the artist)

Tsuchimochi had blended Art Deco architectural monumentalism with a wabi-sabi mood (accepting imperfections in a fleeting world,”) making the proud buildings of chic and prosperous Ginza melt into the wet-slicked streets below. The other Tsuchimochi works I found also exhibited this quiet beauty, standing off but available for anyone who cared to look. Wabi-sabi, pop.

From the Shitamachi Hyakkei Initiative: 100 Images of Working Class Neighborhoods, by Shinji Tsuchimochi (Collage of individual images courtesy of the artist.)

To Ukiyo-e, from Manga and Animé

Tsuchimochi explains, in an interview with JAPAN Forward, that as a young boy growing up in Tokyo he was attracted to manga and animé. In middle school he first encountered ukiyo-e, the work of famed artist Katsushika Hokusai.

“Hokusai’s art was imposing,” Tsuchimochi tells me. “His subjects leap off the page, but are also restrained by his compositional skill. And there’s a sense of playfulness and mystery to his drawings and prints. It was like van Gogh, in a way. I wanted to learn more.”

Tsuchimochi began exploring Japan’s rich ukiyo-e tradition, all the while seeing parallels with artists from other places and times. For example, the sometimes uncanny presentation of Kuniyoshi has echoes, Tsuchimochi says, in the work of French artist René Magritte. Tsuchimochi wasn’t looking at ukiyo-e as a specifically Japanese artform, but just as art, learning from past masters of the ukiyo-e and other traditions how to construct a drawing, painting, or print.

Artist Shinji Tsuchimochi (photo courtesy of Shinji Tsuchimochi.)

Entering the Ukiyo-e Tradition

As Tsuchimochi grew as an artist, however, and as he started to share his works with others, he began to see himself as more consciously studying the ukiyo-e way of making a work of art. When I ask Tsuchimochi which ukiyo-e artist he admires the most, he doesn’t hesitate: “Hiroshige”.

“I respect Hokusai very much. His compositions are outstanding,” Tsuchimochi adds. “But Hokusai was maybe a little too ahead of his time, or a little too insistent on making art to suit his whimsy above all. I like Hiroshige’s work in that sense, because Hiroshige conveys intimacy and familiarity. He invites the viewer to share space with him. There’s a quiet feeling in Hiroshige’s art that draws me in.”

Hiroshige is perhaps most famous for his ukiyo-e series, such as the Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Edo Meisho Hyakkei) and the Fifty-Three Stations on the Tokaido Road (Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi). Having received an invitation from the organizers of the Miyakodori Reiwa Shin-Hanga (“new woodblock print”) Project to contribute artworks, Tsuchimochi decided to follow in the footsteps of the old master, Hiroshige, and “walk around the city I live in — Tokyo — and draw what I saw.”

From the Shitamachi Hyakkei Initiative: 100 Images of Working Class Neighborhoods, by Shinji Tsuchimochi (Collage of individual images courtesy of the artist.)

‘One Hundred Views of Working-Class Neighborhoods’

For three years, as part of the Miyakodori initiative, Tsuchimochi worked on what he calls the “Shitamachi Hyakkei” project, or “One Hundred Views of Working-Class Neighborhoods”. 

Anyone who has walked through the shitamachi neighborhoods of Tokyo can confirm that what Tsuchimochi draws is what really meets the eyes in these places. Things are a bit run-down, but hearts are warm and smiles are bright. Vistas are often crowded with shop signs and powerlines, and one is much more likely to encounter a fading storefront or a welter of rusting bicycles than any grand mountain views or metaphysical landscapes. One can almost hear the train rails clack and screech as the local goes lumbering by.

But this is real life in Japan’s contemporary capital. Tsuchimochi has captured the essence of these places — and also made them come alive in a new dimension, where a touch of sadness creeps in and the colors tend toward the autumnal and crepuscular. 

In one image, a couple standing on an old-style red bridge gazes wistfully out at the Tokyo SkyTree. The underside of the bridge is latticed with the reflected late afternoon sunlight from the greenish little canal below. 

There is a wabi-sabi current running just beneath the surface here — accentuated, rather than alleviated, by the whimsical Hokusai-like touches that Tsuchimochi likes to use, such as improbable monkeys driving delivery trucks, random pieces of giant shrimp tempura floating in the sky where the moon should be, and a small army of smiling maneki-neko and other workaday kitty cats perched in various corners of Tsuchimochi’s shitamachi world.

In another image, an industrial canal and the accompanying iron infrastructure and concrete geometry typical of a rather grimy shitamachi scene are partly obscured by a cup of working man’s sake and a preoccupied seagull — not the romantic image that so many have of Japanese life, but the reality, depicted honestly and with deep respect. 

“In my youth, I enjoyed the animé of Hayao Miyazaki,” Tsuchimochi says. The influence is plain in many of Tsuchimochi’s pieces — there is a bustling, but also a stillness, a kind of lost-world purity but also the occasional harder edge of real life. He also loved Tintin and Mickey Mouse. Tsuchimochi’s works vibrate as perhaps only the works of someone who grew up watching cartoons — actual moving drawings — ever could.

“I want to be honest above all,” Tsuchimochi continues. “So much has changed since the ukiyo-e masters lived. I don’t want to try forcing ukiyo-e to be reborn today as though no time had passed and Tokyo was still Edo. But at the same time, when I draw I feel a sense of nostalgia. Something is gone and cannot be brought back.”

Detail of a woodblock in progress from Ginza in the Rain’ by Shinji Tsuchimoto

The Lost, and Invincible, Art of Ukiyo-e

Tsuchimochi says that some of the old ukiyo-e techniques were so advanced, and the forgetting of them so total when Western art came pouring in at the end of the Edo Period, that even today it is not entirely known how exactly the old painters and printers accomplished their artistic feats. “It took a 10-year apprenticeship to become a woodblock carver,” Tsuchimochi says, emphasizing the amount of technical skill that had to be learned in order to master ukiyo-e. “The people who came before us could do things that we still can’t emulate.”

“Even when we experiment with laser block-carving,” he says, “we can’t match their technique. Without the art of the carver and printer, there is no ukiyo-e, so it is a serious loss.”

But in all this the spirit of ukiyo-e lives on, Tsuchimochi adds. “Ukiyo-e was, at heart, about people enjoying art. The pleasure of the masses—that was ukiyo-e’s real strength. Ukiyo-e artists had a service mentality, they wanted to serve the people by giving them something enjoyable to see.”

“That is what I admire most. That is the part of ukiyo-e that will always be there waiting to be reborn.”

Nihonbashi Surijun Video: Printing an Ukiyo-eーNihonbashi (Courtesy of Shinji Tsuchimochi).

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Author: Jason Morgan

Film Editing: Shaun Fernando