Ukiyo-e reflects turn of century mood changes across Japan


The Meiji Era is considered to mark one of the low points of ukiyo-e, Japan’s distinctive art of woodblock prints. This, however, is not apparent from the current exhibition at the Ota Memorial Museum.

Titled “Ukiyo-e at the Turn of the 20th Century,” the exhibition has quite a wide focus, ranging from the late Edo Period to the early Showa Era. This was a time when Japan lost confidence in itself and turned its back on many of its traditions in a desperate effort to catch up with the Western nations. As it regained confidence, the country turned once again to cherish its traditions.

“Contemporary Fashions of Women (2)” (1930) by Kiyoshi Kobayakawa

“The Girl Tojin Okichi,” by Kiyoshi Kobayakawa (1898-1948), shows a girl passively playing the shamisen as an American kurofune (black ship) lurks on the horizon. This nonchalance is in marked contrast to the excitement of an earlier print by Utagawa Sadahide (1807-1873). This shows a seascape alive with boats, dominated by a giant American paddle steamer, magnified in the mind of the artist to titanic proportions. This accurately reflects the deep psychological impact that foreign sea power must have had on the Japanese mind.

More artistically successful is his print, “A Ship Coming Into the Bay of Nagasaki,” which depicts a Russian sailing ship. The billowing sails and fluttering flags allow Sadahide plenty of scope to impress, just as the Russians seek to impress as they go ashore in a longboat with trumpets blaring and drums beating.

Trade with the advanced Western economies gave artists access to brighter inks. This can be seen in “The Restaurant at Kashiwa-ya at Higashi Ryogoku” (1878). In this work by Kunichika Toyohara (1835-1900), vivid reds, greens, purples and blues jostle for attention, almost canceling each other out.

“Sight at Ochanomizu” (1880) by Kiyochika Kobayashi

Other artists were less carried away by such technical innovations, but started to use Western techniques of solidity and shade at variance with traditional ukiyo-e. “Sight at Ochanomizu,” by Kiyochika Kobayashi (1847-1915), shows a night scene of a boat on a moat surrounded by clouds of fireflies. In “Mount Fuji on a Fine Morning After Snowfall” (1932), the artist Hasui Kawase (1883-1957) allows nature to do his shading for him. The snow coating the windward side of the pine tree creates the effect of light and shade, giving the tree greater solidity.

The work that best captures the mood of the period is perhaps “Children’s Play: Snowball Battle” (1906), by Shoun Yamamoto (1870-1965). Showing a rambunctious snowball fight between two groups of children, it echoes the brutal and heroic struggles fought out in the Manchurian snows between the Imperial Russian and Japanese armies the year before. Two groups of boys — one wearing caps, the other with handkerchiefs tied around their heads — fight in the snow.

In the foreground, a boy with a cap wrestles a foe to the ground. With his other hand he raises a snowball in the air, about to strike, as a smaller boy grabs his hand from behind in order to stop him. The drama of this composition is heightened by the sharp diagonal pattern on the main boy’s coat.

In the same way, the traditional and the modern grapple with each other in this refreshing exhibition of an art form that remained characteristically Japanese.