Production I.G> WORK LIST> Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai> SPECIAL FEATURE> History Special 1: The Floating World

History Special 1: The Floating World

I. EDONISM Imagine early XIX century Japan. This is called the Edo Period, as the political centre of the country has moved from Kyoto (site of the Imperial Court) to the city of Edo, the future Tokyo. Since 1603, the country is under the rule of the Tokugawa dynasty, officially governing on behalf of the Emperor. And since 1639, the country has been under a strict isolationist policy against the world: Japanese citizens may not leave the country, and foreigners are not permitted to land, with the exception of the port of Nagasaki, where only Dutch and Chinese merchants are allowed, and a trade port in Tsushima for the Koreans. But this is not an age of stagnation. On the contrary, it is an artistic Renaissance under dictatorship. With no more internal wars, Japan undergoes a demographic boom, reaching a population of approximately 30 million, like France. Edo is one of the largest cities in the world, boasting more than one million inhabitants, against 560,000 of Paris and 860,000 of London. The city has nurtured a rich and diverse urban culture and a strongly hedonistic lifestyle, known as ukiyo, the floating world, the transient everyday reality that has to be enjoyed in full. Commoners have money to spend. They look for entertainment in kabuki theatre, sumo wrestling and legal brothels, and have developed an interest for pictorial reproductions of their favourite actors, beautiful women, high-rank courtesans, and popular spots of their beloved city, in a time when photography does not exist. This is how woodblock prints become hugely fashionable: a mass-produced and mass-consumed form of popular art. These are the ukiyo-e, pictures of the floating world.

II. TEAMWORK Woodblock prints was a bustling industry, and required tight collaboration among different categories of highly specialized craftsmen. The artist provided the design on paper, which had to be approved by the state authorities and obtain a censorship seal; the cutter carved it out on a series of woodblocks, one block for each colour; the printer had the delicate role of colouring the print, and providing a number of effects, such as gradations and blurs. Finally, the publisher was the producer of the situation, selecting the creative team and providing the concept for the project. The publisher had its own network of retail shops, but could also wholesale to other outlets. Artists could have a very different approach to this system. An annoying perfectionist such as Hokusai would make specific requests regarding the cutter he wanted to work with in order to achieve the desired result, sarcastically pointing out the poor performance of staff picked by the publisher without consulting with him. Hiroshige, on the contrary, hardly complained or made specific requests, and his being easy to deal with made him overwhelmed by orders. Artworks were reprinted as long as demand lasted, but the original blocks would wear out with repeated use, and the original printer often provided his services (certified by his personal seal on each copy) only for the initial edition of few hundreds copies, with the result that successive impressions could have very different, if not inferior, colours or treatments. The ukiyo-e industry shaped today's Japanese publishing industry, and their production process has striking similarities with that of animation, in which Japan excels today.

Modern Allegory of the Four Occupations, by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865), also known as Toyokuni III. Despite the fictional representation of all shopkeepers and customers as women, this 1857 tryptic print still represents an important historical reference providing a depiction of a print outlet in the Edo period. The four occupations in the title refer to the four social classes Japan was divided into at the time, all represented here in various roles (National Diet Library).

III. FOR A BOWL OF NOODLES Ukiyo-e may refer to both paintings and prints, either as single sheet or in books. Paintings remained exclusive items for a selected clientele. Prints, on the opposite, were much cherished at the time they were published; still they were mass-produced popular art offered at a very affordable price, comparable to the same amount of a bowl of noodles from a food stall. There were of course limited and more expensive artworks for private clients, but popular subjects could be hand-printed by the thousands. Best-selling works by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865), one of the most prolific and successful artists of his time, are believed to have circulated between 5,000 to 10,000 copies. Large printers could produce up to 3,000 impressions a day. Illustrated books were popular items, too, with strong titles exceeding 10,000 copies sold within the first month of release, and they should be considered an expression of the same ukiyo-e culture. However, when the art of the ukiyo-e flourished, Japan had just closed its frontiers to the world, and Japanese prints reached Europe only sporadically until the opening of Japan to western markets after 1854. Frequently repeated, yet historically debated accounts have it that Claude Monet and Félix Bracquemond accidentally discovered ukiyo-e because they were used as stuffing for shipments of goods that were apparently considered more valuable at the time: pottery. Whatever the truth may be, the 1867 International Exhibition in Paris, that saw the first participation of Japan represented by the then collapsing Tokugawa government, proved a turning point for the diffusion of ukiyo-e and Japanese culture in Europe. And from there, Japanese prints, with their asymmetric layouts and vivid depictions of everyday life from a distant world, quickly gained the admiration of a whole generation of European artists and collectors, even influencing a whole artistic movement known as japonisme. (fp)

(1 - to be continued)

© Production I.G