The beauty of ‘man’-kind

by Yoko Haruhara

Special To The Japan Times

While the ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicting beautiful young Japanese women of the Edo Period (1603-1867) are world-renowned, an equally worthy genre and common theme tends to get overlooked: that of handsome men. The imaginative exhibition “Handsome Boys and Good-looking Men of Edo,” currently on show at the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art, brings to light the celebration of the male figure by great Edo Period woodblock print artists.

The exhibition reveals an urban popular culture that flourished with a focus on form and beauty. The Edoite’s attention to beauty extended to handsome, rakish young men in the street as well as to famous kabuki actors, the celebrities of the time who were worshipped by the public for their amazing transformations into beautiful young women in kabuki performances.

Dashing male figures, along with their female counterparts, captured the styles of the time. The keen eyes of artists were drawn to men from many walks of life, including page boys, fire fighters and palanquin bearers.

Iki, the practice translated roughly into English as “cutting-edge taste and innovation,” was the passion of the day. Fearful of rebellion from the populace, the shogunate clamped down on public freedom, issuing a series of sumptuary laws from the early 1600s through the Edo Period. Those laws forbade townspeople from engaging in acts of conspicuous consumption, including wearing luxurious garments and displaying tattoos. But the restrictions ironically contributed to a flourishing of commoner culture, as people became increasingly bold in circumventing the laws.

The sudden fervor for tattoos — sparked in part by the acclaim of an 1827 series of prints by the woodblock artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) that depicted courageous warriors covered in fanciful multi-colored tattoos — is a prime example of the Edoites’ pursuit of iki. In fact, Kuniyoshi’s work started the popular movement of portraying pictorial scenes, which can be considered as the birth of tattooing as we know it in Japan today. The pictorial tattoos became so wildly popular that Kuniyoshi and his disciples moonlighted to provide the tattoo parlors of the time with new designs.

Prints on display at the exhibition reveal a staggering range of tattoo motifs in red and blue, including dragons, sea waves, heroes brandishing swords, and cherry blossoms. Artists gravitated in their depictions to occupations such as carpentry and firefighting, where men commonly revealed bare skin, allowing for natural poses to reveal their tattoos.

This exhibition explores the beautiful details and embellishments used in ukiyo-e art portrayals of men. As you view the many stances, scenes and social settings in which such characters were depicted, you will gain an appreciation for the great attention this culture placed on portraits of beauty, not only of men but also of women.

“Handsome Boys and Good-looking Men of Edo” at the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art runs till Aug. 25. 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. ¥700. Closed Mon. www.ukiyoe-ota-muse.jp/index-E.html