Friday, 27 January 2012

How Come All These Japanese Prints Look The Same?

Kuniyoshi, Hanbei 1840
Kunisada, Hanbei 1840

 We’re showing nine prints on this page, all of which seem to share something in common. In some of them the full height, man walking seems to be almost the same; in others a half portrait only; and in all of them a drably coloured striped kimono. How come they share so many characteristics? How come they all seem so similar?

Kuniyoshi, The 100 Ogura Poets 1847
Kunisada, Hanbei 1852
The simple answer is that they all depict the same character in the same kabuki play, even though the actor is not always the same, the production is not necessarily the same and the dates of the prints are eighteen years apart. It is perhaps helpful to imagine the current vogue for remaking classic films. Despite the fact that fifty years may separate the productions, modern film makers will in the majority of cases adopt the same signifiers for a role - the poses, the costume, the haircut etc and the iconic stills from the film will most probably be re-imagined for the 
release poster and so on. Nobody questions that a film role or stage role comes with its own baggage, its own identity. So it was with kabuki, and perhaps more so because of the inherently conservative nature of the art, of the audiences and of the culture.

Kuniyoshi, 36 Fashionable Restaurants 1852

The play that is depicted in all these prints is called Yaoya no Kondate and features the tragic tale of Hanbei, a greengrocer and his wife Ochiyo. Based on the true story of a shinju (double suicide) in 1772,  the play, written shortly after the event, was an immediate hit. Hanbei is an honourable and humble man who loves his wife; unfortunately his wicked step-mother, Okuma, lusts after him. Compromised by the complex tangle of relationships, Hanbei and Ochiya are obliged to commit suicide to find uncomplicated love in the afterlife. The most prolific image from the play is not the dramatic suicide or the seduction by the older woman but of Hanbei, pictured as mild and unassuming, walking away to meet his lover, the forged letter of divorce in his right hand. Kuniyoshi is usually credited with the invention of this strolling, disaffected figure because of his famous depiction of Hanbei in the series The Ogura Poets Compared, a compendium of one hundred prints by Hiroshige, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi and one of the great print series in ukiyo-e.
Kunisada, Hanbei 1852

Kunisada, Hanbei 1856

Kunisada, Hanbei 1858

It is interesting to note that in fact Kuniyoshi first introduced the strolling, turning figure to illustrate Hanbei in the third month of 1840. Kunisada also produced a similar print in 1840, depicting Hanbei in his customary robes - both prints commemorating a performance at the Ichimura theatre in the second month of that year. The distinctive robes will have been the choice of the actor (Nakamura Utaemon IV), the pose is Kuniyoshi’s own. Having revived the pose in 1847 for the 100 Poets series, Kuniyoshi reuses it in 1852 in a collaboration with Hiroshige for a series depicting famous restaurants. Here he has kept the pose and the robes but brought the figure right up to the picture plane to create a half length portrait. In the same year, Kunisada borrows the turning figure wholesale for an actor portrait now in the Brooklyn Museum. He uses the figure once more in 1856 to illustrate a puppet play on the same theme and finally in 1858 for a series of famous actors in hit plays, where he sets the actor against a similar backdrop to Kuniyoshi’s steep, one point perspective of 1840, but set at night using a hugely skillful scheme of dark blues and blacks. Intriguingly, one of Kunisada’s finest prints, a surimono of the Yoshiwara at night also uses this scheme but without the figure. The date of this piece is unknown although it is presumed to be from the 1850’s.

What we can learn from these examples is not a shameful story of plagiarism, but a rich example of collaboration, and of shared artistic and cultural experience, something less known in western art. Ideas and notions of genius and of individual talent were fairly unknown to the Japanese in the 19th century. Rather, they enjoyed the to and fro of images and the building of micro-genres which resulted in a constant refinement of one icon or another sometimes (as we can see here) over a period of decades.

Kunisada, Night in the Yoshiwara

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