Friday, 29 April 2011

Of Men and Umbrellas - Kasa-obake in Hirosada’s Woodblock Print


What a fantastic image we have here. Who is it, what is it, what does it mean? At first glance I suppose that this looks like a diffident man poking his head through the battered sides of a Japanese parasol.

This is a representation of a kabuki actor in the role of Kasa Ippon ashi or Kasa-obake - the "one legged umbrella demon". The demon is an artefact spirit or Tsukumogami - that is, an object that is over one hundred years old and according to belief has become imbued with a life force being both alive and aware. These spirit objects are similar in many ways to our belief in poltergeists. Like poltergeists they are playful and mischievous but rarely malign, although they become more angry when they witness needless waste which should make them popular with the current trend for recycling!

When not on the kabuki stage these sprites are pictured with one leg and an incredibly long tongue. Although they are traditional folklore creatures, they have enjoyed a resurgent popularity in the twentieth century. This is partly to do with the video gaming industry which tirelessly seeks out bizarre figures and outlandish plotlines. As you will see from some of the illustrations Kasa-obake now turns up as avatars, plastic toys, cartoon characters, and movie stars. The Hirosada woodblock print picture above is the first instance that we can find anywhere of a representation of the demon although I’d be fascinated to know if there exists an earlier one.

For those interested in Yokai, (Japanese demons) I recommend the movie trilogy Yokai daisenso ("Big Ghost War: Spook Warfare") Japan 1968, dir. Yoshiyuki Kuroda; Yokai Hyaku Monogatari ("One Hundred Monsters") Japan 1968, dir. Kimiyoshi Yasuda; and Tôkaidô obake dôchû ("Along With Ghosts") Japan 1969, dir. Yoshiyuki Kuroda; or Takashi Miike’s recent Yôkai daisensô ("Great Yokai War") 2005. Kasa-obake makes a hugely entertaining appearance in these films, a clip of which can be seen here on youtube.


















Kasa-obake make an appearance in Super-Mario Land 2 and in Muramasa - the Demon Blade; they also have a starring role in the great Manga series Gegege no Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki.

This unique print remains a superb and enigmatic image; the first depiction we can find of the umbrella demon. Beautifully printed and sensitively rendered it emanates a quiet mystery. It is a beautiful object and is available at the Toshidama Gallery for only £225.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Giant Spiders - Obscure Meanings in Japanese Prints Part I

Arachnophobes - which I’m afraid includes me! - should look away now. Ukiyo-e is littered with the corpses and the dripping fangs of over-sized and fantastical spiders. Something one notices immediately is how similar they all look and also how dissimilar to any ordinary spider one might have come across. Not only in their size; you will also notice that most only have two eyes and six legs instead of the correct number of eight. Why is this and what is the ukiyo-e fascination with them?

There is some discussion over the creature known as Tsuchigumo, (the gigantic spider). The name translates as ‘ground spider’ and there has been a great deal of speculation about the relationship between the myth of the spider and an aboriginal race of people who supposedly lived in the north of Japan. The Koropok-Guru or Pit Dwellers of Northern Japan were a distinct racial group who dwelt in underground pits until around the 6th century and were anathema to the incoming races that form the dominant group of peoples in recent times. It seems as though these pit dwellers (also called Tsuchigumo) were wiped out by the incoming Ainu peoples whose roots are in Russia. The Ainu still form a distinctive racial group in modern Japan, finally recognised as such towards the end of the twentieth century.

It is possible, (although not proven) that the Tsuchigumo of myth is some kind of retelling of these ancient battles. Most of the research that backs up this theory is over one hundred years old and not entirely reliable. At any rate, the Tsuchigumo we are concerned with primarily appears in the story of Minamoto no Raiku. In this great myth the hero Raiko is busy investigating the appearance of gigantic floating skulls. During this quest Raiko falls ill and is confined to bed and ministered to by either a young servant boy, a beautiful woman or a priest depending which you believe. A retainer of Raiko suspects the boy, and his true identity as that of the giant spider is revealed. A chase ensues and there is a fight in a cave in which Raiko kills the beast who then erupts with enormous spiderlings which are in turn destroyed.
Kuniyoshi made many great prints of Tsuchigumo and it is useful to compare the Kuniyoshi version of 1845 with say, Kunichika’s masterly triptych of 1866. You will notice that despite the intervening twenty years, there is little or no difference in the rendering of the great spider. The comparison illustrates perfectly the normality of ukiyo-e artists in appropriating each others work for commercial and artistic ends. Ideas of copyright or intellectual property were completely absent in nineteenth century Japan leading to a huge pool of imagery that was copied, modified, recycled and embellished. There is something enviable in this humility and esprit de corps that is quite different from recent western regard for individual genius. The Japanese are no less creative, abundant or disregarded for their tradition and it is refreshing to see such great art that is free from the tiresome hubris of lonely genius touched by God.

Nevertheless to our eyes the myth has been responsible for any number of entertaining images and there is little doubt that the tradition of Tsuchigumo has informed recent graphic and literary output, especially in Japan where the imagery has migrated right across the diverse platforms of manga, anime and computer video games.

We have the most widely reproduced Kuniyoshi Tsuchigumo on sale at the gallery for £325 in the current exhibition and other arachnid images from our archives for those interested in the subject. The exhibition runs until 27th May 2011.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Care of Japanese Prints

It’s important to know what to do with prints when you buy them; these are after all rare and valuable things and a long term investment. People collect ukiyo-e for a variety of reasons; some are collectors with a real passion for the subject or for a particular artist, others appreciate the art but also wish to amass a substantial portfolio of work which can be realised... sold on some years later for profit. Investment is the key driver in the market and Japanese woodblock prints are fast becoming valuable commodities and a good hedge against inflation.

Given that some prints are very valuable indeed, the question is what to do with them when you have them. At Toshidama Gallery we acquire prints from sources all over the world, and more often than not they arrive rolled in cardboard tubes, or folded loose in a padded bag, and backed with all the wrong papers and mounts. The first thing we do is try to remedy these problems to prevent further damage.

There are two schools of thought with regard to the safe storage of prints. Some people feel strongly about not mounting prints; while others, like ourselves, take the long view that if properly mounted, the print is kept flat, easily managed and better protected for long term storage. At Toshidama the first thing we do is to remove prints from inappropriate mounts and flatten them if they have suffered curling. We never join triptychs but nor do we separate them if they have been previously joined.

Prints should be mounted professionally using rice paper conservation tape which these days is fully reversible. The board should be acid free conservation mounts since the acid in ordinary card will encourage the print to yellow and go brittle. Window mounts in the same material definitely enhance the look of a print but also protect the surface from contact by other sheets. Finally, we store prints in acid free mylar protective conservation sleeves which prevent humidity changes and protect against accidental damage. This is how our prints are shipped; flat-packed in custom, stiffened mailers, ready to be stored directly by the client or framed for display. This saves the purchaser a huge amount of work, who otherwise would have to source a conservation framer to carry out the same job. Prints should be stored out of direct sunlight either flat or vertically and sensible precautions should be taken to avoid damp or mildew.

We recommend that the prints are kept as they are. However the outer frame dimensions can easily be changed without detaching the print from its backing. Early vegetable-dyed prints (pre-1830) should rarely be exposed to light without full spectrum museum quality UV protection glass. Later prints are more hardy and the inexpensive, lesser grade UV glass can be used. We generally use simple dark stained oak frames for ukiyo-e prints. The recent British Museum and Royal Academy Kuniyoshi exhibition used more or less identical frames to our own.The Toshidama Gallery is always happy to advise on conservation matters and to supply framed prints if clients request them.