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Kuniyoshi’s Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints Exhibition Offers Needed Comic Relief from COVID-19

Through cat caricatures, awe-inspiring warrior portraits, and snapshots of kabuki actors of the time, explore the exciting point of view of Utagawa Kuniyoshi at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art.

Arielle Busetto

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Yoshiwara Sparrows’ Temporary Nest by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. (Courtesy of Ota Memorial Museum of Art)

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It’s tempting to get bogged down with mundane life during a pandemic.

The news constantly gives the number of new COVID-19 infections and daily deaths. All anyone talks about are viruses, antibody cocktails and vaccines. 

In moments like these we can find comfort in stories of people in history, who also suffered from epidemics and turmoil, and still found things to laugh about.

This is what came to mind as I entered the ukiyo-e (woodblock print) exhibition of “Utagawa Kuniyoshiat the Ota Memorial Museum of Art.

Kuniyoshi was an artist in the Edo period (1603-1868), in the unstable period of the Tempo reforms, a time when war, disease, and difficulties were part of everyday life.

Kuniyoshi is even known to have gotten into trouble and been summoned to the magistrate’s office for some caricatures he drew.

Yet he never lost his curiosity in the world around him, or his passion for depicting the world, sometimes in creative and sarcastic ways. In the year of the 160th anniversary since the death of Kuniyoshi, the exhibition running from September 4 to October 24 explores the world of the ukiyo-e artist.

The museum has assembled a vast array of musha-e (warrior pictures), giga (caricatures), landscapes, bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), yakusha-e (portraits of kabuki actors), and images with children.

In this exhibition, you will be able to see the most famous works by Kuniyoshi, such as Takiyasha-hime Summoning a Skeleton at the Haunted Old Palace at Sōma, as well as some wonderful jems and genres even ukiyo-e buffs are unlikely to have seen before.

We pick out some of the highlights below.

Kuniyoshi The Cat Lover

It might surprise some people to find out that Kuniyoshi was an unabashed cat lover, and he had several cats he took care of. 

The master’s apprentices would also sometimes play with the cats. 

A portrait by an apprentice, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, shows the master sitting down and looking over his shoulder, with a cute cat curled near his legs.

The feline friends even appear in Kuniyoshi’s art, sometimes impersonating humans, as is the case in Fashionable Cats, or drawn in shapes that form the word for katsuo (bonito) fish.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Kuniyoshi is known to depict comic anthropomorphic animals, and for good reason.

His pictures portray not just cats, but also frogs, birds, fish, and more. 

Yet, there was also a practical reason for this. In the Tempo period (1830 -1844) the depiction of actors and prostitutes was forbidden, putting a theoretical ban on many pictures that Kuniyoshi was famous for.

But this didn’t stop the artist from finding a loophole. He resorted to still drawing caricatures of kabuki actors and real people, but in the shape of animals.

The result is playful depictions which record the times, and perhaps manage to steal a smile from viewers looking at them as then and now. For example, one artwork, Fish with Actors’ Faces, features a particularly angry looking sea bream. 

The curator of the exhibition, Akira Watanabe, gave JAPAN Forward some insight into what makes these works so important in our time: 

“Now with COVID-19, it’s not a very happy time. If you think of things that soothe the heart in these kinds of times, they are things that are cute, or that are funny, or a mixture of the two,” reflects the curator.

Then he explained the artist’s appeal: “Kuniyoshi has drawn many images that are lighthearted, that while being cute and making you laugh, they somehow soothe the heart.”


A Hunger for Documenting the Wonderous World Around Him

One sub-genre of Kuniyoshi’s works also includes a careful chronicle of the times he lived in, seen through the eyes of the grand master.

There is one stunning image of a Kabuki actor when he came back to perform in Edo after being banished from the city for seven years, portrayed in the artwork, Kabuki Play “Arigataya Oedo no Kagekiyo.”

Then there is the depiction of an amused and confused crowd of Edo citizens when they see a large dead whale beached on the shore of the Shinagawa River.

Yet all stories, even the most tragic ones, are still told with a pinch of humor, as seen in the image of Memorial Portrait of Kabuki Actor Ichikawa Danjuro VIII. It shows the funeral of a famous Kabuki actor, who was known to be quite popular among the ladies.

The image portrays only women weeping and bawling in the wake of the passed away actor. In the corner, a cat, presumably female, also appears to be crying, giving a slight tinge of comic relief to an otherwise sad scene. 

“I think there was an aspect of wanting to steal a laugh from viewers, so that even sad news could be brightened up,” explained curator Watanabe.

“However,” Watanabe also elaborated, “it was also his style to try to introduce a new point of view, or making it slightly comical, no matter what the topic. If you look into the small details of each work, I think you will notice that spirit.”

“Even though he lived in a dark time, Kuniyoshi really enjoyed drawing, and therefore he found ways of communicating that through his work,” said Watanabe.  

He concluded: “In our age, we are all trying the best we can to enjoy life despite the tough times we live in. I suppose from that standpoint, we could say that we have a lot in common with Kuniyoshi, wouldn’t you agree?”

The Exhibition “Utagawa Kuniyoshi” will be running at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art from September 4 to October 24. Check the museum website for closed days and hours.

ABOUT KUNIYOSHI

Utagawa Kuniyoshi was one of the grand masters of woodblock print, and was active in the late Edo period, a time particularly flourishing for ukiyo-e, literally “images of the floating world,” which described the art of woodblock prints.

The artist was active in the late Edo period. He trained in the Utagawa school, and debuted as Utagawa Kuniyoshi in his teens.

After struggling to make a name for himself, he found fortune with a series of “One Hundred and Eight Heroes from Tales of Water Margin”), and until the age of 63 was a productive artist, who trained lots of disciples in his wake.

  

RELATED: [A Visit to the Atelier] Some Thoughts and Anecdotes on Collecting Ukiyo-e

For a broader discussion of ukiyo-e, see the series, “A Visit to the Atelier,” on JAPAN Forward, at this link.

Author: Arielle Busetto

Arielle Busetto is a journalist at JAPAN Forward. She has finished the intensive Japanese course of the Inter University Center For Advanced Japanese Studies in Yokohama in summer 2018, and is originally from Siena, Italy.