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Japan Meets West in Daniel Mitsui’s Religious Art




Daniel Mitsui is an artist living and working in the United States. In 2016, Fr. William Farge’s The Trials of Baba Bunko—about a samurai and storyteller argued to have been a kakure Kirishitan Catholic in Edo Period Japan—was released with a cover illustration done by Mitsui in the style of Kuniyoshi, one of Japan’s most beloved ukiyo-e painters.


JAPAN Forward reached out to Mitsui to find out how he became interested in Kuniyoshi and how Japanese art and culture have influenced his own work. Here are excerpts from our e-mail interview.




How did you learn of Kuniyoshi? At art school, or through your own research?


I did not have a strong interest in Kuniyoshi, or really in East Asian art at all, until about 2010. At that time, I was already working as a professional artist. My specialty was, and remains, ink drawings based on western medieval religious art: illuminated manuscripts, Gothic painting, early European printmaking.


The idea to make something in the style of an ukiyo-e print was not my own, but was suggested by one of my patrons: a Catholic priest of a missionary order (Maryknoll) that has a long history of working in Japan. 


His request was for me to draw St. Michael the Archangel in the style of a Japanese woodblock print. In late medieval iconography, St. Michael wears the armor of a knight and fights against the Dragon of the Apocalypse. The transposition of the subject into Japanese style meant depicting him in the armor of a samurai. 


I accepted the commission with some reluctance, as I had never attempted anything like this before. It was while researching visual references for this project that I first noticed the art of Utagawa Kuniyoshi—and immediately admired it. His work, of course, includes many violent and fantastic subjects. I am thinking especially of legendary warriors doing battle with giant fish, salamanders, bats, and spiders. These were perfect for my own artistic inspiration here.


I know that many critics and collectors of Japanese art have a low opinion of these sort of ukiyo-e. I have read them described as “garish.” Well, I would rather see, or make, a work of art that runs the risk of being called garish than a work of art that runs the risk of being called boring. Kuniyoshi’s artwork is never, ever boring. 


The most fantastic 19th and early 20th century ukiyo-e seem, in a very indirect way, to share a common spirit with the work one of my favorite Western artists, Hieronymus Bosch. Walter Bosing wrote that in the art of Bosch, “the dying Middle Ages flared to a new brilliance before disappearing forever.” When I look over something like Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, I sense a similar defiance and sadness, a similar sense of urgency to preserve the memory of traditional art, culture, and literature in a rapidly changing world.


The art of Bosch is rooted in medieval mnemonics—images used as mnemonic cues must be bizarre in order to be effective. Bosch surrounded traditional Christian iconography with bizarre creatures in order to demand that it be remembered. I believe that Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi were making a similar demand as they saw the traditional Japan that they knew disappearing. 


I am an anachronistic artist by choice, a medievalist in the twenty-first century, so I pretty much approach the entire creative process in this spirit. 


Were you formally trained in any particular kind of art? Was it through that training that you came across the work of Kuniyoshi? Do you know of any Kuniyoshi experts in Japan or the US, and do you have interest in any other ukiyo-e or other Japanese artists?


As an art student in college, I studied oil painting, charcoal drawing, film animation, lithography, wood carving and etching. Of those media, etching was my favorite, and has had the most lasting effect on my artwork. I no longer make etchings because the materials are too toxic to use at home, surrounded by small children. But the same approach to picture-making that goes into scratching tiny lines into a ground-covered copper plate with a stylus works well when drawing with a metal-tipped pen on calfskin. Also, the process of printing my own etchings first gave me an appreciation for different inks and papers. 



I am rather amazed to think that while I was studying printmaking, I never thought about the Japanese tradition. At the time, I had not yet made religious artwork my specialty, but I was already a strong admirer of Martin Schongauer. I think that if I had encountered both Schongauer’s prints and Kuniyoshi’s at the same time, my artwork would have become much better, much sooner!


What do you find particularly attractive about Kuniyoshi’s artwork? Are there specific ways in which his work has influenced your own? For example, do you admire his technical skill (if so, which ones), his personal generosity, his devotion to teaching others, his use of color, something else?


Well, I just mentioned that I wish I had encountered the prints of Schongauer and Kuniyoshi together. For years, I tried to imitate the style of Schongauer and other early European printmakers. But I was always reluctant to add hatching, the close parallel lines that they used to give their pictures shadow. For a time, I thought that I was just intimidated to learn the technique properly, but eventually I realized that I don’t want hatching in my artwork.


Byzantine and early Gothic art has no depictions of cast shadows. This is purposeful. The perspective of traditional Christian iconography is a view out of heaven, a view from which divine light illuminates everything. It is totally different perspective from that of a chiaroscuro painting or print from the Baroque era. 


So, while I yet admire the art of Schongauer, I consider one aspect of it a departure from medieval tradition. But is it possible to create a graphic work of art as sophisticated as his without hatching and cast shadows? That problem has been solved, by the Japanese ukiyo-e masters.


Like Byzantine and early Gothic artists, they did not use hatching or depict cast shadows. Obviously, their intention was different, but I see in the work of Kuniyoshi a way to maintain the principles of traditional Christian iconography even in a graphic medium like a woodblock print or a black ink drawing.


When I study one of Kuniyoshi’s prints, I see a picture that is built out of layered areas of contrasting colors and patterns. These all have definite shapes. Trace the outline of any object or figure or group of figures in one of Kuniyoshi’s prints—the outline is always a thing of beauty in itself. The shapes meet and overlap each other in a thoughtful arrangement. The meeting of the outlines is deliberate. 


Right now, I am looking at #31 of Kuniyoshi’s Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaido: Takagi Toranosuke looking out at a whaling party from the shore. He has his hand raised above his eyes, to shade the sun. And the outline of his fingers almost, but not quite, touches a boat barely visible in the distance. Two other boats are cut in half by his nose and mouth. There is a peninsula jutting into the sea far in the background, and its outline passes behind part of Toranosuke’s ponytail, but just barely misses touching his scalp. All of this is very suggestive, but so subtle that it might totally escape notice. 



The great lesson that I have learned from Kuniyoshi—one which I apply in all of my drawings, not just those that directly imitate Japanese art—is to build pictures out of outlines, shapes, and patterns. I do not build them out of natural light and natural shadow. 


Can you tell me about the genesis and development of The Battle in Heaven, the Kuniyoshi-themed painting which also is used on the cover of Fr. Farge’s book on Baba Bunko? Your website says it was done on private commission. I understand you probably cannot say anything about for whom the piece was made, but what about your own personal insights into the painting process? Was there something that you wanted to convey by aesthetically mixing Kuniyoshi and St. Michael? What have audiences and critics said about the painting? How much did being on the cover of Fr. Farge’s book help spread the word about your own artwork?


As I mentioned, my first transposition of a medieval subject into the ukiyo-e style was a drawing of St. Michael. It proved to be a very popular, and similar commissions followed. I have drawn Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Wedding at Cana, St. Raphael, the Second Dream of St. Joseph, and St. Christopher in a style heavily influenced by Kuniyoshi. 


That first commission of St. Michael was, as I said, something that I had never tried before, and I thought that I could do better on a second attempt. So, when a different patron expressed interest in a drawing of St. Michael, I was eager to accept. Here I expanded the subject to include several angels and demons, as described in the Apocalypse:


And there was made a great battle in heaven, Michael and his Angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon fought and his Angels: and they prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And that great dragon was cast forth, the old serpent, which is called the Devil and Satan, which seduceth the whole world: and he was cast into the earth, and his Angels were thrown down with him. (Revelations 12: 7-9)


I arranged the picture based on an occidental work of art: the 11th picture in Albrecht Dürer’s famous series of 15 woodcuts illustrating the Apocalypse, first published in 1498. The postures of the angels closely match those in Dürer’s print. But I depict the angels as Japanese warriors, resembling those in Kuniysohi’s prints who fight with monstrous animals. 



I really loved making this drawing, and thought it a clear improvement over my first Japanese-styled drawing of St. Michael. I have received a few kind e-mails from people who have seen it reproduced on Fr. Farge’s book. I suppose the most surprising thing about its reception is that most people seem to like the first drawing better.


Your main artistic interests seem to be medieval art and Catholicism. Do you have any plans to pursue Japan-themed works in the future, or will you be focusing on other fields?


I will continue to consider commissions for similar drawings. I have also become fascinated with another kind of Japanese art, one more properly religious: the Buddhist sutras written and illustrated in gold and silver ink on indigo-dyed paper. This tradition flourished in Korea as well. I would be very interested to attempt something like this in the coming years. 


In my speculative work, I am less interested in imitating different styles of art than I am in incorporating the most appealing aspects of them into a hybrid style that is basically Gothic. Many of my drawings that are not obviously Japanese in style are yet influenced by Kuniyoshi and other Japanese artists. Many of them also have aspects of Persian and Northumbro-Irish art.


Besides Kuniyoshi, is there anything else that draws you to Japan? In particular, I wonder if you are interested in Japanese Catholicism, Japanese Catholic art, the history of martyrdom and “hidden Christians” in Japan, or other aspects of the faith here. Have you ever visited Nagasaki?


As my surname suggests, I have Japanese ancestors, on my father’s side. However, they came to America about a century ago, so the cultural connection to Japan is not strong. The story of my family is much more of a Japanese-American one than a Japanese one. 


I certainly am fascinated by the history of Japanese Catholicism, and the kakure Kirishitan especially, but as far as I know, I am not descended from any of them. Most of my Japanese ancestors were either Buddhists or Baptist Christians. 


I have never visited Japan. I don’t travel much.


As for other aspects of Japanese art, several of the drawings that I mentioned were made on washi, the traditional Japanese paper handmade from the long fibers of the gampi or kozo plant. Washi is gorgeous: thin, translucent, and just slightly iridescent. It is also absurdly difficult to draw on using western tools. Metal-tipped pens loosen fibers from its surface. So do erasers, and so do the scalpel-like knives that I use for making corrections of calfskin vellum. Calfskin vellum, the traditional material for medieval manuscripts, is the most forgiving surface to a draughtsman. Washi may be the least. I wonder how many artists there are besides myself who regularly draw on both!


In order to complete a drawing on washi, I usually make a draft image on Birstol board, and then trace it onto the washi using nothing but fine paintbrushes. 


Thank you for your time, Daniel. This has been a wonderful peek into the life of a working artist, as well as into some overlooked treasures of Western and Japanese art.


My pleasure.