November 7, 2011

Twelve Months by Toyokuni: The December Pounding of Rice Cakes

This picture is one of a series depicting the annual events and changing lives of people through the seasons from January to December. It was published in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1854. The artist, Utagawa Kunisada (circa 1786–1864), a pupil of Utagawa Toyokuni I, took the name Toyokuni III in 1844. In the Edo period, no well-to-do family would greet the New Year without making its own rice cakes. Some of the cakes were made into kagami-mochi, mirror rice cakes, large round hard cakes piled one atop the other, to be offered to deities at the New Year. They represented mirrors, which from ancient times were sacred objects in Japan. Here, three women, their hair covered, are hard at work. At the right, the only man in the scene is pounding steamed glutinous rice, while a woman moistens her hands in cold water and, every time the hammer rises, deftly turns the rice over. At the low table on the left, another woman shapes it into rounds. Beside her, a lady is sitting fanning the rice cakes, while a small child in the arms of a young woman waves a spray of mochibana, little balls of rice cake that look like flowers. Toyokuni III specialized in pictures of actors and beautiful women, and although he is said to have been the most prolific of all the ukiyo-e artists, he also produced many book illustrations in a different style.

Colors of the Triple Dawn

Saishiki mitsu no asa (Colors of the triple dawn) was designed as a folding picture book consisting of seven color prints by the famous artist of ukiyo-e, Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815), considered by many to be the finest master of the style. The work was published in 1787. Born in Edo (present-day Tokyo), Kiyonaga studied under the Torii master, Kiyomitsu. Kiyonaga’s prodigious output included many illustrated books and individual prints and series. Mitsu no asa, literally translated as “the three mornings,” means the morning of New Year’s Day: the first day of the first month of the new year, when every thing starts over at the same time. Hence this day traditionally has been celebrated by people over the country.

Cool Evening at Shijogawara during the Gion Festival

This work depicting the Gion Festival in the mid-19th century is by Gountei Sadahide (circa 1807–78), also known as Utagawa Sadahide and Hashimoto Sadahide. The festival, one of the major summer events in Japan, dates back well over 1,000 years and is still held in Kyoto for the full month of July. Its purpose traditionally is to pray for the protection of the populace from disease during the hottest season of the year. Sadahide belonged to the Utagawa school and was a pupil of Kunisada, also known as Utagawa Toyokuni III (circa 1786–1864). Sadahide created many pictures of Kabuki actors and beautiful women, as well as genre paintings and landscapes. He was much appreciated for his representations of life in Yokohama, showing the Western influence on his country. Sadahide was particularly skilled at detailed landscapes, panoramas with map-like elements and a bird's-eye view, such as these evening scenes at Gion published in 1859.

January Sekku Festival

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) was a disciple of Utagawa ToyokuniⅠ (1769–1825), founder of the Utagawa school. In this work produced in about 1847, Kuniyoshi presents a typical New Year’s scene of the Edo period (1600–1867). In the center of the picture is a large kite with the image of Bodhidharma (also called Daruma), a Zen Buddhist sage of fearsome appearance who was often caricatured in Japan. Children are playing with the kite, around which stand three mothers with children. The pair in the middle is on the way to take the first bath of the year. The pair on the right plays battledore and shuttlecock, and the pair on the left is watching the kites fly. In the distance a merchant draws a cart loaded with the year’s first cargo, with Mount Fuji symbolically looming beyond the cloud. Five annual festivals, Go-Sekku, mark the changing cycle of seasons, and the January Sekku contains the New Year celebrations. Kuniyoshi’s colorful ukiyo-e prints were wildly popular in his day.

Kanjinchō, One of the 18 Great Plays of Kabuki

Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900) has been called the last great master of ukiyo-e. His dramatic Kabuki three-page sets of prints are much admired for their skilled use of color. Here he portrays Kanjinchō, a Kabuki play written earlier in the 19th century. This nishiki-e (Japanese multicolored woodblock print) was based on a performance of the play in May 1890 and published that year. The story is set in the late 12th century and shows at left Minamoto no Yoshitsune, played by Onoe Kikugorō V (1844–1903). Yoshitsune is a son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, the former head of the Minamoto clan (also called Genji clan), and he and his followers are being hunted by his brother, the Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo, the present head of the clan. While they are fleeing in the disguise of yamabushi (Buddhist mountain priests), they come to a checkpoint at Ataka in Kaga Province. There they are harshly interrogated by Togashi Saemon no jō, seen at right played by Ichikawa Sadanji I (1842–1904), who is under Yoritomo’s orders to arrest them. One of Yoshitsune’s followers, the quick-witted Benkei, seen at center played by Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838–1903), asserts that they are not Yoshitsune’s party but real yamabushi, journeying around the provinces seeking donations for the rebuilding of the Tōdaiji Temple in Nara, which burned down in a battle. Challenged to prove his identity, Benkei takes out a blank scroll and says that it is a kanjinchō (subscription list formally laying out the benefits of donating to rebuilding temples) and pretends to read from it. Sparks fly from the eyes of one man to another. Benkei, anticipating that his ruse will be exposed, stares hard at his opponent. Togashi, sniffing out Benkei’s deceit, unsheaths his sword. Yoshitsune, dressed as a porter but behaving as if the deception has been detected, prepares to fight. The triptych depicts the whole situation, showing the complex feelings of each man through the expressions and gestures of the players. The old pine tree and the young bamboo trees painted behind the actors are based on the backdrop of Noh plays, which predated Kabuki.

Mitate-e:Crossing at Sano

Suzuki Harunobu (circa 1725–70) was a master of ukiyo-e in Edo (present-day Tokyo) and the key figure in developing nishiki-e (Japanese multicolored woodblock prints), such as this one. It shows a young woman at dusk in heavy snow, trudging across a bridge. Her feet are bare except for black lacquered clogs, and she is holding one long sleeve of her kimono over her head to protect her from the driving snow. The picture is based on the waka (short poem) “Sano no watari” (Crossing at Sano) by Fujiwara Teika (1162–1241) in Shin kokin wakashu (an imperial poetry anthology). The original waka features Teika himself, but in this mitate-e (a picture substituting a contemporary figure for a person in the past), a young woman takes his place. This picture is an e-goyomi (picture calendar), of a type called daishō-reki. The daishō-reki showed the long months (of 30 days) and the short months (of 29 days), which changed each year. This one is a calendar of 1765. The numbers are printed very small, at the bottom right corner of the picture on the side of the snow-covered bridge. Little is known about Harunobu’s life. His work is celebrated both inside and outside Japan for its colors, poetic atmosphere, elegance, and refinement.