Friday, 6 January 2017

Male Tragedy in Japanese Prints


Kunichika, The Tokaido Road

Kabuki Theatre and Japanese Woodblock prints… the defining cultural artefacts of nineteenth century Japan. It’s hard to think of anything else which recounts the daily and national struggles of a people more than these two linked expressions of social and artistic need. The two themes that dominate the theatre and the woodblock prints that popularised it could be shaken down to a couple of subjects… the male tragedy and the female ability to cope in the face of such futility and pointless waste of life.

The current show at the Toshidama Gallery and the show that follows takes the twin themes as the subject for the next two collections. The first of these … Male Tragedy, gathers twenty three prints, each of which illustrates the difficult journey - a literal journey in the case of Kunichika's outstanding early triptych shown above - that the Japanese male was obliged to follow… what I find interesting and slightly depressing is how easily these stories translate to modern times, whether it is the plot of West Side Story, or the front pages of the daily newspapers. When analysing the twenty-three prints in the collection, noticeable (but quite unscientific!) groupings appear.


First off, the striking difference between prints made in Osaka and those made in Edo (Tokyo). On the whole, the Osaka prints are of males accepting their fate, if not with resignation, then at least with finality…. . The Yoshitaki print of Onoe Tamizo II as Gonpachi shows the tragic anti-hero despatching himself with a great deal of gore on a boat, his race is run and only death by his own hand awaits him. Here of course it is even more interesting to note that the writers of kabuki dramas and their artists changed the real Gonpachi’s fate of execution to the fictional and more dramatic suicide, the better to stress that all-important sense of duty. Then what of the tragic failed actor, Kohala Koheiji, murdered by his wife’s lover and returning as a ghost to haunt them from beyond the grave… reduced to stealing their child in revenge; or indeed the hapless Danshichi, enduring years of taunting from his father-in-law and ending his life for the murder of his tormentor. The Osaka style of acting was in any case gentler than its Edo counterpart, and this is reflected in the style of the woodblock prints and their subjects.


Counter those prints with the Edo selection: there is for example that fabulous early Kunisada warrior print, a musha-e that rivals and is part of a hoard of prints that predict, Kuniyoshi’s great Suikoden series. Kunisada draws Fan Kuai battering down the door of the Imperial banqueting hall in his desperate need to protect his master. There is none of that Osaka diffidence in this swirling, active print… all flailing arms and bristling muscles, googled eyes and puffed cheeks… no shred of pathos here! Or further still, the otokodate - those brutal tough young men so beloved of Kunisada - perhaps his great print of Ichimura Kakitsu IV as Goshaku Somegoro, from The Story of a Chivalrous Man in the Theatrical World.


Despite those differences of geographical style, there is a constant theme in these nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints… maybe it is the disappointment of unfulfilled potential. Those two polarities, what one might term passive and aggressive, can be applied to the majority of male depictions in woodblock prints… that can be extrapolated to include unfulfilled potential, (as it can in disaffected youth today), so there is the actor Koheiji, his unfulfilled career marginalised and ignored. Danshichi, certainly is an archetype of male frustration; Gonpachi… his despair at being unable - not 'man enough' - to rescue his lover from the horror of prostitution, or the hapless servant Ishidome Busuke, slowly bleeding to death in front of his master as he recounts the details of his own murder.


Busuke’s death puts one in mind though of the dutiful tragedies… the men of the 47 leaderless Ronin, condemned to act out a pointless revenge on the man who caused the death of their master in the story of the Chushingura; Yoshitaki’s Soga Brothers… two brothers whose lives are over before they even begin as they are condemned by fate to avenge their father’s murder, an act that would inevitably result in their own tragic deaths. Yes, there’s a theme developing here, in this exhibition of twenty-three prints there are just a very few actual subjects… widen the frame still further and there’s still the same old characters cropping up in one guise or another… The Soga Brothers, the 47 Ronin, Gonpachi, Ishikawa Goemon, Danshichi, The Watanbe Vendetta and so on.

These tragedies (however heroic or violent, these are all tragic), are about desire as much as fulfilment… perhaps these two states are connected… . The Japanese sensibility is primarily Buddhist, and of course the futile desire for things is one of the tenets of Buddhism… the human failing that underpins man’s inevitable unhappiness.

That great scholar of Japanese art, Roger Keyes, curated an exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum San Francisco in 1989 entitled, The Male Journey in Japanese Prints. I can only recommend the catalogue which accompanied the show, for in it Keyes offers heartfelt, if not always scholarly, insights into the male 'journey' and the male struggle. Rightly, he finds many parallels between the trapped townsmen of Edo Japan, struggling to find an expression for their masculinity in a patriarchal society undergoing violent changes outside their control and the present-day accelerated pace of social change thanks to the technological revolution, and causing similar challenges for 21st century males. Keyes rightly observes that the ukiyo-e of the eighteenth century are very different in feel from those of the nineteenth. Archaic Japanese woodblock prints do not display any of the anxiety that their later counterparts revel in. The prints of the earlier period are almost exclusively representative of luxury, of pleasure, of decadence.., the true spirit of ukiyo.


Keyes is passionate about the Japanese print’s outstanding ability to speak to us across the great void. I am with him here, strangely to most of us, the cultural references and the tradituons are quite alien and yet… there is a real sense of communication. That is down to the outstanding ability and humanity of the artists, and as Keyes suggests, the sheer honesty of the way that they spoke.

In his catalogue, Keyes identifies different arenas in which these artists addressed the male tragedy… Childhood, Youth , Maturity, Death. Within these he posits that the ukiyo-e artist was able to show real understanding and compassion, to recognise that for the man in nineteenth century Japan, the pressure to be bold, dutiful, loyal, filial, honest, noble and successful was unsustainable. Much like it is today. Little has changed apparently; today, just as then, men have an impossible amount of potential to live up to; today, just as then, the world that once seemed to offer some chance of fulfilment is slipping away. For many young men and middle aged men today there are echoes of tragic Danshichi… tormented and harangued, always short of money, humiliated at work, bored and enfeebled by temporary distraction - for them, the prostitutes and the kabuki - now… gaming platforms and internet pornography.


Keyes asks how one might go about seeking some kind of fulfilment in the face of great obstacles and the sense of having one’s tail trapped in the door. He attempts to show that there is the possibility of transformation (journey in today’s parlance) and that these Japanese prints show clues in the manner we might find that fulfilment…
How did the Japanese artists deal with the angry violence, the turmoil and the abuse of power they began to see? As their peaceful society broke in the nineteenth century, how did they engage in the very issues that we are struggling to resolve today?
Keyes demonstrates that the real power that comes from these masterpieces of art is the inner, passive strength that sustains us in the face of defeat… Osaka and its Buddhist acceptance as opposed to Edo and its unstoppable rage!

Nevertheless, I shall let the kabuki actor Arashi Rikan II have the last word, in the poem he wrote to accompany the print of poor, tragic Danshichi… a man who couldn’t take it anymore:
The young bamboo does not mind the weight of the rain.
- as Keyes puts it, ironic since the print shows a desperate man who has just eviscerated his father-in-law.

The Male Tragedy in Japanese Woodblock Prints is at The Toshidama Gallery until the 17th of February 2017. Do please join our Gallery Mailing List and receive news of forthcoming shows and discounts on every purchase.