JAPANESE POPULAR PRINTS by Rebecca Salter. London: A & C Black, 2006, 208 pp., 221 illustrations, £30 (paper)

“Japanese Popular Prints” is an entertaining, surprising and unique journey through the popular culture of the most colorful period in Japanese history. Some may already be familiar with Japanese woodblock prints, yet after looking through the 221 color illustrations here, Japanese art lovers are likely to discover images for the first time.

With beautiful and little-known prints of the 18th and 19th centuries, the book introduces page after page of entertaining, comical and intriguing images that give an in-depth view of the daily lives, forms of entertainment, mind-sets and pleasures of the fun-loving residents of Edo.

Rebecca Salter, an accomplished woodblock artist herself, gives an insightful description of the development of Japanese woodblock printing — from its black-and-white Buddhist origins to the golden age of ukiyo-e in the 19th century — and enlightens us with details of the important publisher-artist-carver-printer relationship. She goes on to introduce us to Edo society, its passions, social excesses, censorship laws and, most importantly, its love for play on all levels from lighthearted children’s games and frivolous popular indulgences to complex visual parodies and social satire.

The West all too often considers only the “play” of children. In Japan, however, even to this day, “play” can be seen as an art form in itself. This concept, combined with visual sophistication, a high level of literacy and beautiful polychrome printing for the masses, gave birth to an amazing descriptive array of visual pleasures.

These prints were of a type never seen before and many of them have never since been reproduced for a contemporary foreign audience.

In the huge metropolis of Edo, citizens were hungry for news, scandal, fashion, torrid love stories and perhaps, above all, entertainment and good times. Salter has skillfully gathered these fascinating, and rarely reproduced images, and has researched and arranged them in a way that is understandable and highly entertaining.

In the first chapter,”Knowledge News and Views,” we are introduced to artfully illustrated novels, yearly calendars and news sheets informing the public of tragedy, events and the coming of Western influence. We find the society’s obsession with lists, rankings and reports on everything from delights of the night to seasonal food and restaurants. And of course the Japanese great trait for escape with travel guides, adventure stories, maps, advertising Edo style, and the amazing distortion prints that used curved mirrors and reflective surfaces to create illusion.

Next we enter the world of “Faith, Fortune and Well-being” through the exclusive lives of the religious votive-print collector-traveler-fanatic, evidence of which can still be found across Japan on the eaves and columns of shrines and temples. These mysterious prints and their meanings are colorfully explained through the lives of their patron’s esoteric antics and travels. Other subjects include the unique folk law of catfish prints, the boom in medicinal packaging and the curious but hauntingly beautiful memorial prints that commemorate the death of kabuki actors.

Finally, in the pursuit of “Leisure, Pleasure and Play,” we find the boundaries of games, creative spirit and visual sophistication blending in the true tradition of comedy where absurdity and intellect find common ground in word games, social satire, pictorial parodies and visual tricks. The imagination and graphic mastery of Kuniyoshi and his disciples feature with beautiful and often hilarious imagery.

By the end of the Edo Period and the early Meiji Era, the production of traditional polychrome woodblock prints approached their twilight with exquisite works portraying the Westernization of Japan in educational and entertaining illustrated games. It is an ironic and saddening end to this story that with their skills refined over centuries, artists and artisans instructed the imported technology that ultimately took away their livelihood and brought a rapid end to their wondrous creations.

For Japanese scholars, lovers of beautiful images and the playful at heart, “Japanese Popular Prints” uncovers surprises from a lost world as well as re-invents new possibilities for humor and play within us all.

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