Friday, 22 January 2016

The Warrior Sensibility in Japanese Prints

Kunichika, Minamoto no Yoshiie and Ino Hayata Hunting the Nue

Kunisada, Narita no Shinzo
The current exhibition at Toshidama Gallery is called The Warrior Sensibility in Japanese Prints. The twenty-four prints by seven artists cover the bulk of the nineteenth century; the 'sensibility' of the prints is their fascination, principally, with self-sacrifice… it is the lot of the warrior to endure a shorter life than say the farmer or the shopkeeper. In Edo Japan, there were no more wars, no more conflict but there were hundreds of thousands of farmers and shopkeepers. What was it, one wonders that drew them to this redundant position, this futile occupation?

Romanticism surely. So many of the myths and the stories are great romantic dramas and they are more often than not peppered with great mythological beings such as the nue, the ape headed, snake tailed monster successfully shot down by Minamoto no Yoshiie (pictured top). There is something more profound at work here, a longing perhaps for courage and fortitude singularly lacking in the great mass of economically disadvantaged peasants and townsmen of Edo and beyond.
Kuniyoshi, Ryuchitaisai
Kunisada, Taira no Tadamori & the Oil Thief

There is surprisingly little gore in the musha-e (warrior print) tradition. Although most people think of extreme violence in Japanese warrior prints, the bulk of them are quite passive… a standing figure, a rushing horde, a striking portrait… all tattoo and scraped back hair. Warrior prints are emblematic of struggle rather than illustrative of carnage. There is little carnage in this show… more than carnage there is a connection with the challenged or the challenging figure.  Look how Kunisada’s Narita no Shinzo stares at us out of the picture (pictured above right) and look, too how most of Kuniyoshi’s Suikoden hulks pause in their grappling and smashing to stare at us, the viewer and engage with us. Indeed, there is a proper self consciousness, if not embarrassed awkwardness about the pose of Ryuchitaisai (pictured above left) in Kuniyoshi’s portrait… that sideways glance as he tries to save his own life from the flailing grappling hooks. In the really outstanding print of Taira no Tadamori and the Oil Thief (pictured above right), Kunisada borrows the same habit from Kuniyoshi of making his protagonists engage with us at a very intimate level. Of course in the actor portraits, like those of Sadanobu (see Jiraiya, below right), we might expect the actor/warrior to pose for us, especially with the convention of the head and shoulders portrait, but even in these outstanding portraits, there is an inner conflict and an outer engagement… the torment is internalised, our gaze awkward and intimate.
Kunichika, Travelling Alone to the 53 Stations
I guess that we are being invited then, into the 'internal' world of these warriors… unlike say a Marvel action comic or a scene of carnage in a western history painting, we are being allowed into the private world of the often conflicted warrior. I think this connection is, for me at least, what makes these marvellous pieces so hugely engaging. The only blood spilled here is in the fabulous and early Kunichika triptych of Travelling Alone to the Fifty-three Stations (pictured above), here there are people clutching at bloody wounds, but we know before we look that this is light opera… it’s a safe environment!
Sadanobu, Jiraiya
So many of these characters are outsiders, rejects or outcasts from the ruling elite. Take the Sadanobu portrait of Jiraiya (pictured right) - the boy who was thrown off a cliff and brought up by hermits to revenge himself on the Daimyo; or the sickle carrying peasant who cut down Mitsuhide and was himself cut down for breaking the law of gekokujo, "the low oppressing the high. Yoshitsune and Benkei battling on Gojo Bridge… the most popular heroes in nineteenth century Japan and yet Yoshitsune was the younger brother, unfairly hunted to death by his evil brother who established the Tokugawa Shogunate that lived on until 1864. The great series of prints by Kuniyoshi that established the genre in the mid 1820’s, The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden, was celebrating rebels and outlaws, not loyal palace guards or members of the Shogun’s private army. And what of the great looming skeleton in Kuniyoshi’s 
Yoshitoshi, 100 Aspects of the Moon
greatest design (in fact one of the greatest designs of Japanese art in the nineteenth century), Mitsukini defies the Skeleton Spectre Conjured by Princess Takiyasha? The subject is Princess Takiyasha on the left hand sheet, small and diminutive, summoning the spectre… once again Kuniyoshi is showcasing a young woman, principled, alone and self sacrificing, setting herself against the might of the Emperor. Maybe finally, there is real pathos in the face of the nue, in Kunichika’s Minamoto no Yoshiie and Ino Hayata hunting the Nue… the actors stand either side, expressionless, and yet the poor old nue looks at us the viewers with real pain and pity.

So many of these warrior prints we know carried hidden meanings for the Edo audiences. The endless printed series on the Chushingura, the revenge story of the 47 Ronin; the quiet rebellions of warrior poets against unflinching authority; the poor and the wandering retainers cut down by the inflexible and tradition-bound warrior class. There is a subtle message here: these warriors were inspirational because (I would argue) of their quietness a lot of the time, and not the more obvious loudness. I don’t see these as 'war pictures' or even action pictures. Technically they are warrior prints, but in the end, I think the embattled Tokugawa shogunate were right to be suspicious of these pictures of reflective and introspective rebellion; and their lamentable and in the end futile attempts to ban, or proscribe them was ultimately justified.

Kuniyoshi, Mitsukini Defies the Skeleton Spectre Conjured by Princess Takiyasha