Japan Art and Ukiyo-e: Tall Tales and Japanese Woodblock Prints

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Tall Tales and Japanese Woodblock Prints

Alex Faulkner

By toshidama

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Some stories persist; immune to cultural change, embroidered and adapted to different times, rising and falling in popularity and sometimes losing touch completely with their origins and their roots. None of this matters of course, what matters is what people make of a story, how cultures adapt mythology to suit their own needs or express their particular frustrations. In the west I’d think of King Arthur, the sixth century English tribal chief who has fulfilled everything from Anglo-Saxon desires for nationhood, the greed of the Glastonbury monks who faked his grave to attract pilgrims; or the Victorians who made him their great romantic saviour and the new-age people of today who see in him a mystical link to a lost and greener world.

So it is in all cultures (http://toshidama.blogspot.com/but perhaps more so than any in the Edo culture of nineteenth century Japan. In Japanese woodblock prints, many legends and myths surface again and again in one disguise or another. The rich mythological history of Japan is the persistent thread that runs through the subject matter of the entire genre. The period was particularly volatile; economically, politically and socially. Japan had emerged at the beginning of the century as a robust bourgeois society, dominated by townsmen but mired in the shogunate – the samurai culture of the middle ages. The century-long struggle to adapt and face the new challenges of international trade was painful. Print artists like Utagawa Kuniyoshi or Utagawa Kunisada struggled to express the growing unrest of their audience in the face of punitive censorship laws aimed at quelling popular dissent. One way round the prohibitions was to make series of prints glorifying the deeds of the past, celebrating great warriors or heroes and illustrating the poems and myths of common popular culture. These history essays and genre pieces stood in for the real subjects of the prints which were often too controversial to be directly addressed.

Mitate was a common form of expression; it means “to stand in for” or “to satirise”. To the urban Japanese mitate-e or satire prints were akin to the modern cryptic crossword puzzle whereby identities of actors or plays, historical figures or bandits were referred to obliquely by gesture, by objects such as flowers or else places and landmarks. In spite of their obscurity, the prints were quite readable by the well educated urban Japanese.

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One such hero, pictured in hundreds of prints of the mid-nineteenth century is Oniwakamura known as Benkei. Born in 1155 and reputedly of enormous strength and vitality, Benkei was raised by monks who were both religious and military. As a young man he positioned himself at one end of Gojo Bridge and disarmed travellers of their swords. On reaching his 999th sword he fought with a young nobleman Minamoto no Yoshitsune who won the battle of the bridge and thereafter Benkei served as his principal retainer. They fought in the Gempei wars between the Taira clan and their own Minamoto clan. The conflict saw the destruction of the Taira clan and the establishment of a nationwide shogunate and the suppression of the power of the Emperor for 650 years until the Meiji Restoration in the 1860’s. Given the waning grip on power that the shogunate experienced in the nineteenth century, depictions of the rebel heroes Benkei and Yoshitsune no Minamoto were bound to be contentious; all the more given that after their military victories, they were hounded to his death by Yoshitsune’s own brother who assumed supreme power.

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Benkei and Yoshitsune represent hugely powerful symbols to the Japanese… heroes, warriors, rebels and men of principle. By representing them, artists ran the risk of glamourising the names of the men who were betrayed dishonourably by the infant shogunate. The fight at Gojo Bridge is maybe the most widely reproduced scene from the life of Yoshitsune. It is important to remember that this is a symbolic fight and not one between opposing powers. The fight, almost certainly mythical, sets out the future relationship between the two characters; it establishes their physical presence and their personalities. All the other stories that follow stem from this crucial coming together of the two heroes. I am reminded very powerfully of the English hero Robin Hood and his fight with Little John on the bridge in Sherwood Forest. These two myths are certainly the same archetype… the smaller man of noble birth defeats the giant on the bridge who has a heart of gold and swears fealty to the victor. Both Robin Hood and Minamoto are heroes pitched against unreasonable odds and the relationship between them and the stronger men is nearly identical. Like the Japanese, the English have allowed Robin Hood to enter their culture as a powerful symbol and like Minamoto his story continues to be retold and developed.

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