“Are you tourist?” asked the man seated beside me on the early afternoon flight from Tokyo’s Haneda airport to Kochi in Shikoku. He spoke in hesitant English.

“Not exactly. I’m on my way to cover the Ekin Matsuri,” I replied in Japanese.

“Ah, Ekin. I’ve been to it a few times,” he said, switching languages. “You should have fun. Ekin’s pictures are very . . . colorful.”

“Colorful” was an understatement. Ekin’s works run the gamut of the gruesome to the bizarre — bloody vendettas, love suicides, decapitated heads and other dramatic scenes from the kabuki performances he was commissioned to produce publicity posters for. And to grab people’s attention, Kochi’s celebrated 19th-century artist aimed to maximize his images’ shock value.

Whether or not Ekin’s graphics lured more people in to the theaters we’ll never know, but his stunning depictions of violence have surely earned him his niche in history — one celebrated on two evenings each July on the main streets of Akaoka, the town in the city of Konan in Kochi Prefecture where Ekin practiced his art. For those two special days — unless it rains — the streets become a lively promenade where people can admire byōbu (illustrated screens) produced by Ekin about 160 years ago.

As Akaoka is just a short taxi ride from Kochi’s Sakamoto Ryoma Airport, it was still before 4 p.m. when my driver dropped me off near the Ekin-gura, the small museum opened in 2005 that serves as repository of Ekin’s works. That gave me about an hour to browse before closing time.

In addition to the displays, visitors to the museum can watch a video about Ekin’s life story and of course also shop for items such as miniature screens, postcards, illustrated kites, books and the ubiquitous T-shirts.

Directly across from the Ekin-gura is the Bentenza, the beautifully maintained traditional theater that supports the museum and is the hub of Akaoka’s cultural events.

I myself had first stumbled across Ekin’s works several years previously while researching depictions of violence in 19th-century Japanese art. As an acknowledged pioneer of the genre, Ekin influenced generations of artists, from illustrators of woodblock prints to today’s adult manga.

Ekin (full name, Hirose Ekin, 1812-76) lived and worked during the turbulent years leading up to the collapse of the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867, which was followed by the emergence of proto-modern Japan under the Meiji Emperor.

Simply named Kinzo at birth, as common people didn’t have family names before the Meiji Era, the future artist was the son of a hairdresser in today’s Kochi Prefecture, which was then called Tosa. As a youth his skills attracted attention, and he was apprenticed to a master of the Kano Tanyu school of art named Ikezoe Yoshimasa. At his master’s urging, when he was 16 in 1829, the feudal Tosa domain sponsored his studies in Edo (present-day Tokyo) under Souke Tohaku, an official supplier to the Tokugawa regime. In addition, he received instruction in the style of the Kano master Maemura Touwa.

Then in 1832, Ekin returned to Tosa and, after arranging to obtain samurai status (which could be bought through a sponsor of that rank), he took the name Hayashi Toi and became a painter under the patronage of a top official. However, though (or because) this was a highly prestigious position, a rival soon had him accused of forgery and he was ignominiously dismissed.

Nothing is really known of how he spent the next 10 years, but he is thought to have wandered the Tosa domain paying his way as a dye artist, producing banners and fabrics. Events in distant Edo, however, were to change all that.

In 1842, Mizuno Tadakuni, dour senior adviser to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi, instituted the so-called Tempo Reforms which, among other things, prohibited rangaku (literally, “Dutch learning” — but meaning all Western studies). They also banned many publications and “frivolous” entertainment, such as kabuki.

Three years later, when Mizuno was fired and exiled, ecstatic Edoites are said to have poured into the streets and posted graffiti, one of which read: “Maruki yo wo shikaku ni shiyō to Echizen ga horidasarete Mita no sankaku.” (“The triangular [i.e., deranged] Lord in Mita tried to force his square mold on a round world; good riddance.”)

Following Mizuno’s dismissal, kabuki made an immediate comeback and Ekin (literally, “picture gold”) set up a studio in Akaoka and put his pent-up artistic energies to work like a man obsessed. And despite his orthodox, upper-crust training in Edo, he was soon making his name creating low-brow graphics appealing to the hoi polloi.

Ekin’s known remaining works include 70 shibai-e byōbu (drama-picture screens); 13 ema chōchin (illustrated “lantern boxes”); nine ema (votive tablets); 16 woodblock prints; two makimono (scrolls); and seven warai-e (“funny”/”naughty” pictures), one of which depicts a free-spirited he gassen (breaking-wind competition).

His best-known pictures, hinged shibai-e byōbu meant to be placed outside kabuki theaters, measure 180×180 cm, and the stories on them are mainly from kabuki and gidaiyu, a drama style set to music. Many works are gruesome and bizarre. Ekin is credited with having developed his own mixture of paint with particularly vivid red hues that were all the better for the bloody stabbings, slashings and decapitations that were the stuff of the plays — along with seppuku (ritual suicide).

An English guidebook sold at the Ekin museum describes one story:

“Botaro Tamiya, who pretends to be a mute, is hidden in the Shidohji Temple. He ran away from the evil men who had killed his father and exiled his mother. Otsuji, his former wet nurse, committed suicide, offering her life to the God of Kompira, praying that Botaro would be able to take revenge. Botaro, thanks to the divine help of the God of Kompira, polished up the art of fencing. He succeeded to avenge his father and at last was reunited with his mother.”

Which brings us back to the Ekin Matsuri, held the third weekend of July since 1977. On these two days, the Ekin-gura museum and the Bentenza theater waive their admission fees. And more important, while photography is prohibited in most art museums (including the Ekin-gura), during the festival it is permitted to take shots of the roughly two dozen screens and dozen illustrated “lantern boxes” that are displayed outdoors from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the town’s two main streets. It’s all free, and as regards cameras the only condition is to refrain from using flash, as it can cause colors to fade.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ekin was not the only artist on show. A half-dozen modern screens of the same dimensions were displayed in the same manner. One was a Daliesque image of Buddha watching female synchronized swimmers; a second showed a wind-breaking competition and a third various sexual fantasies with a live octopus — a classic erotic scene originally immortalized in the 1814 woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai titled “Tako to ama” — and known in English as “Dream of a Fisherman’s Wife.” Visitors were issued a single toy marble to use for a ballot and invited to vote for their favorite.

As far as Japanese summer festivals go, this was quite subdued, with no thundering drums or frenetic dancing — but a goodly array of outdoor beer gardens with snack foods and live rock music. And whereas Japan’s rural folk used to seem a tad shy, here they were outgoing and eager to engage me in conversation. The local dishes were tasty, too — particularly the katsuo (bonito) in season then.

Before returning to Tokyo the next day, I dropped into the nearby oceanside museum dedicated to Kochi’s most famed son, Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-67), the visionary political activist who played a key role in ousting the Tokugawa Shogunate — though it cost him his life just before that momentous event.

I may balk at such sacrifice myself, but I’d give a lot to return soon to this wonderful corner of Shikoku for next year’s Ekin Festival — or at any time.

For more on all things Akaoka, in English, go to ekingura.com/pdf/englishweb.pdf. The Ekin-gura museum’s online store — at www.ekingura.com/shop/item.html (in Japanese) — ships to anywhere in Japan.

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