Friday, 16 March 2018

Hapless and Heroic - Men in Japanese Prints


Kuniyoshi Takagi oriemon budo jitsu roku
Kuniyoshi, Yokoyama Daizo and Otaka Tonomo, 1848
It’s hard to escape archetypes when discussing culture, whether it’s the contemporary culture that one’s a part of or whether it’s looking at a painting in a museum, or a sculpture in a gallery. I mean to say that there is a tendency also to run screaming from the whole idea… archetypes tie people in knots; the strong woman, the doormat, the hen-pecked husband, the powerful hero and so on. Nevertheless, the idea persists, we find it a useful shorthand and we sometimes tragically make individuals fit those moulds.

It would be hard not to see that the world at the moment, or at least a large part of it, is living through a cultural revolution, one primarily of gender, but a revolution that to a lesser extent informs issues of race, of culture and like all good revolutions, of history. Rightly, women are demanding that equalities of opportunity and of pay in the workplace be radically overhauled and that the way that language and behaviour in every aspect of daily life be also examined and radically renewed. There is unsurprisingly, a great deal of anxiety among men. 

Yoshitoshi Biographies of Modern Men
Yoshitoshi, A Man Battles His Demons (Biographies of Modern Men) 1865

The current show at the Toshidama Gallery looks at twenty odd representations of men in Japanese art of the nineteenth century. It’s not surprising that the archetypes that we expect to see in today’s media are well represented… heroes, hapless victims,  pious youngsters, vicious crooks and so on. I wonder, given the ease with which one can identify familiar ‘types’ in these great works of art, how successful the effort at reimagining and recasting the gender roles will be in the contemporary turmoil?

Taguchi Beisaku. Distant View of Fengtianfu: 1894.
Taguchi Beisaku (1864 - 1903) Distant View of Fengtianfu: The Bivouac of Japanese Troops, 1894

There can be few cultures so recognisable and yet so distant as the art of Edo Japan… a culture pretty well insulated from the rest of the world, (perhaps not as much as some would think); one that has antecedents in ancient China but one that experienced little influence from Western Europe or America; and yet we can spot familiar characters in so many prints and we can template them with either people in our own cultural milieu, or else characters from the movies and television series that we see. Is it possible simply by persuasive dialectic, by the reasoned argument of late modernism to remove these gender stereotypes, to scrub away primary sexual  behaviour or remake men and women in a new and less archaic model? Looking at these prints it would seem that the persistence of gender stereotypes is going to be extremely resistant and imposing reimagined ways of being may take longer than the next year or two.

Edo males were represented by just a few stereotypes. The most obvious is of course the masculine hero. They are not so common as one might think and it would be tempting in the light of my previous comments to assign different characteristics to them. I’m thinking here of the boy heroes of Ushiwakamaru, who was to become the great leader and warrior Yoshitsune, or Kintaro the strong boy, or the young Benkei… . Stories about Benkei's birth vary considerably. One sees him as the offspring of a temple god. Many give him the attributes of a demon, a monster child with wild hair and long teeth. In his youth, Benkei may have been called Oniwaka, ”demon/ogre child", and there are many famous ukiyo-e works themed on Oniwakamaru and his adventures. He joined the monastery at an early age and like other monks, Benkei was trained in the use of the weapons. At the age of seventeen he became a member of a sect of mountain ascetics who were recognisable by their black caps. He went on of course to become Yoshitsune’s right hand man and monstrous, hacking warrior!

Kunisada. Benkei seen in Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road. 1852
Kunisada, Benkei seen in Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road, 1852
One can ascribe some feminine qualities to these characters but generally speaking the Tom Cruise of Edo culture is a straightforward hero… dressed in armour, he is brave, principled, a good husband and father, a loyal servant and a skilled warrior.

Here is Soga Juro, fighting in the rain for the honour of his murdered father. The revenge of the Soga Brothers, Juro and Goro, on their father’s murderer, Kudo Suketane, was one of the most celebrated of the revenge dramas in Edo Japan. Kudo had treacherously killed their father the wrestler Kawazu no Saburo when they were children and the boys were were raised by Soga no Taro. They planned their revenge for eighteen years and in 1193, when Kudo was accompanying the Shogun on a hunting trip at the base of Mount Fuji, they burst into his tent and killed him. The Soga brothers are classic male heroes of the Edo period… determined to carry out the honourable decision to avenge their father, at whatever cost. 

Soga Juro, The Ultimate Hero. Kuniyoshi Print of 1842
Kuniyoshi Print of Soga Juro, The Ultimate Hero, 1842
Two great slash and burn heroes then, we see them still in the Avengers series of Marvel films and in any number of Hollywood productions, but what of other males in Edo? Well, the most common was the Edo townsman, the ancestor of the salary man… the shopkeeper, the clerk, the simple man struggling to make a living and keep his family in a hostile and uncaring world. They didn’t find so much representation in mid period Edo prints, unsurprisingly, their lives were not so interesting until something intrudes to disrupt them, like the hapless duo below, Nakamura Utaemon IV as Matsuemon and Seki Sanjuro as Gonshiro. Not strictly speaking commoners, they represent the great kabuki dramas of the period whereby the arrival of a valuable sword or a disgraced samurai in disguise (as in this case) disrupts their lives and leads to chaos and calamity… perhaps a modern day example might be Night at the Museum, when nightwatchman (a classic kabuki role) Larry Daley takes a seemingly ordinary job which is transformed  by a mystical object, in this case an Egyptian tablet; in Edo it would inevitably be a scroll or a sword! (See the print at the top of the page).

It's Larry. The Nightwatchman in Night at the Museum.
Then of course there is the classic villain, the shifty, cowardly man who is devoted to crime and dishonour… the thief who betrays his friends and murders at will. In this show, thieves and murderers are well represented and of course immediately recognisable in the gruesome features of the actor Ichikawa Hakuen as Tateba no Taheiji. 

Shigeharo. The actor Ichikawa Hakuen as Tateba no Taheiji. 1825
Shigeharo, The actor Ichikawa Hakuen as Tateba no Taheiji, 1825
Taheiji’s evil nature is apparent by his pose in this print. Employed as a retainer, he runs a roadside stall and is not averse to the murder of men, women and children, for a price. Or what about the petty thief Kozaru Shichinosuke, holding a stolen hairpin to the moonlight. His is one of the classic, shifty townsmen that inhabit the dramas and prints of the emerging over populated Edo, but he is a type… the type that still appears in urban crime drama on the television today.

Kuniyoshi.  Kumawakamaru, From 24 Japanese Paragons of Filial Piety. 1842.
Kuniyoshi.  Kumawakamaru, From 24 Japanese Paragons of Filial Piety. 1842.
What decent men can we drag out of the male world of Edo Japan? Well we are showing three examples of Kuniyoshi’s 24 Paragons of Filial Piety. Maybe they will do! The series from 1842 (one of several on the theme) differs slightly from other treatments of the subject… here the dutiful sons are a little more manly and a little less sycophantic than the child prodigies portrayed in  Guo Jujing’s instructive book of the same name, written during the Yuan Dynasty. All of these young men express their filial duty via revenge it seems. None more so than the athletic Hino Kumawakamaru, who slays the executioner of his father and escapes the castle moat using the subtle bending of the bamboo stems as seen in the Kuniyoshi print above.

Masculine Heroes

Mid century Edo then had a pretty straightforward view of maleness. Courage, sacrifice and above all vengeance were the attributes most admired in men. Lack of restraint and dishonesty the most feared. Between these positions were the townsmen, fearful of courage and mindful of the horrors that fate and bandits might throw at them. That is pretty much unchanged today in the west… we admire the great and moral heroes of our day, like the self aggrandising George Clooney - good looking, liberal, loyal and somehow giving the impression of great courage? We despise and fear the ruthless villain, the nameless assassins, the robbers and fraudsters that are the stuff of the inside pages of the newspapers; perhaps the day of the mild mannered townsman has come? Perhaps it never went away... whilst it’s easy to vilify the the successful businessman who is vulgar and sexually predatory, they are few and far between. The bulk of men are still like the Edo townsman, mild-mannered, decent and gentle.

Hapless and Heroic - Men in Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery from the 16th March 2018 for six weeks. Please do join our Newsletter subscription list here.