There are two main arguments to support censorship. One is that it protects the tender sensibilities of a weak-minded public prone to be led astray into immorality and depravity. The other is that it actually stirs the creative powers of artists to new heights by placing obstacles in their way. While evidence that censorship improves public morals is patchy and inconclusive, there are countless examples throughout history of it unwittingly stimulating genius.

This includes the case of the great Japanese woodblock print artist, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (ca. 1797-1861), now the subject of a major retrospective at the Fuchu Art Museum in Tokyo’s western suburbs. Sourced from an anonymous private collection, and subtitled “Woodblock Prints of Eccentricity and Laughter,” the exhibition emphasizes the whimsicality, weirdness, and wit found in Kuniyoshi’s art, and it makes the case that much of this was spurred by the heavy hand of the censor, following the Tenpo Reforms of 1842.

These reforms, named after the period in which they occurred (1830-1844), were a wide range of measures, ostensibly aimed at revamping Japanese society but which were also partly aimed at curtailing the growing economic and cultural independence of the lower-caste urban population of merchants and craftsmen.

New restrictions were placed on displays of wealth and luxury by the lower orders; those great social levelers, prostitution and the theater, were also affected. Kabuki theaters were driven out of the capital of Edo, into what was then the northern suburb of Asakusa. As part of this clampdown, ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artists, such as Kuniyoshi, were banned from producing illustrations of courtesans and actors. As these were among their top sellers, this was a major blow.

But the weak point of regulations is that to be effective they have to be defined. And once defined, ways can often be found to circumvent them that adhere to the letter of the law while disregarding the spirit. This was certainly true for Kuniyoshi, who proceeded to take on the power of the censor.

Something of his attitude can be gleaned from the dark and comical triptych “Minamoto-no-Yorimitsu in Bed Haunted by the Earth-Spider Monster and His Demons” (1843). According to Yumiko Oto, one of the museum’s curators, this pokes fun at the government and the censors. The force behind the Tenpo Reforms, the daimyo Mizuno Tadakuni (1794-1851), the roju or chief councilor to the shogun, is caricatured as the Earth-Spider Monster casting his baleful influence over the shogun, who is represented by the sleeping figure of Yorimitsu. The functionaries imposing the new reforms are portrayed as an army of absurd demons.

Kuniyoshi often got round the law by anthropomorphizing animal substitutes in his pictures of actors and prostitutes. “The Cat Actors’ Expressions of Emotion” (ca. 1842-44) and “Entertainment Under a Hazy Moon” (1844-48), which also uses felines — this time to represent the ladies of Yoshiwara — are two eloquent examples of art’s power to draw strength from and circumvent bureaucratic barriers.

While Kuniyoshi clearly had a strong affinity for cats, he also pressed the rest of the animal kingdom into service in his struggle to outwit the censor. Visitors to the exhibition can also enjoy “Fish With Actors’ Expressions” (ca. 1842-44) and “The Yoshiwara Sparrows’ Temporary Nest” (1846), to be shown in the second half of the show (April 30-May 9).

Kuniyoshi had other tricks up his sleeve as well. The prints “Scribbles on a Storehouse Wall” (1848-7) purport to reproduce graffiti but actually show famous actors of the day in a style that both caricatures the actors and mocks the absurdity of the Shogunate’s regulations.

Getting round the censor is one thing, but the works on display also suggest that the experience fired Kuniyoshi’s imagination and gave him the impetus to develop new forms of expression well beyond the ken of officialdom, such as his trick art. Many of these use silhouettes to make visual puns, while some use assemblages of smaller human figures to create portraits.

Kuniyoshi’s willingness to challenge authority was complemented by a mind-set that looked outward to the wider world, something that can be seen in works such as “Okane, the Brave Woman from Omi” (1830s). Here the shading on the horse reveals that it has been lifted wholesale from an imported Western illustration.

The work of Kuniyoshi is full of the restlessness and vitality of a Japan that was chafing at the bit of feudal authority and would soon overthrow the old order to welcome in the new.

“Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Woodblock Prints of Eccentricity and Laughter” at Fuchu Art Museum runs till May 9; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon.; admission ¥200. For more information, visit www.city.fuchu.tokyo.jp/ art/english/eng/index.html

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