Japanese Art and Ukiyo-e: Where Reality, Culture, Ghosts, History, Religion, Sexuality and Unreality Meets

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Japanese Art and Ukiyo-e: Where Reality, Culture, Ghosts, History, Religion, Sexuality and Unreality Meets

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times


Japanese ukiyo-e art is extremely dynamic because it focuses on many aspects of this nation. At the same time, the world of unreality exists alongside reality and for some individuals it is difficult to know which dimension highlights the array of humanity. After all, in time we all turn to dust and the changing nature of most societies in the modern world, applies to many aspects of modernization and challenging the concepts of the old world.


Of course, some nations appear to be going in the opposite direction whereby modernity is being crushed by religious zealotry – for example in Afghanistan. However, it is near impossible to eradicate the power of ukiyo-e because this art form flows into many aspects of both reality and unreality. At the same time, areas of anime and other aspects of modern Japanese culture fuses naturally within the many angles of ukiyo-e. Therefore, the mystical ukiyo-e period of the Edo and Meiji eras of Japanese history remains powerful within the psyche of modern Japan.


Ukiyo-e art also shows the major convulsions which were happening during the Meiji period of Japanese history. This applies to the changing nature of society, the growing influence of Western ideas, the elite fashion trends of the day, the encroachment of Western art and other powerful areas related to nationalism. Also, the Meiji period witnessed rapid internal political convulsions and ukiyo-e also became utilized by state institutions in order to spread art propaganda during nationalist wars. At the same time, the reality of modernization was gradually eroding the power of ukiyo-e and you can sense this within the rich art work being created before ukiyo-e became eclipsed by the forces of modernization.


Another amazing aspect of ukiyo-e is that many artists could easily produce art work of immense differences. For example, you can easily view the art work of artists like Ando Hiroshige whereby on the one hand he highlights the stunning reality of landscape art through the medium of ukiyo-e; however, on the other hand you can view explicit art based on sexuality within the art form called shunga. This is the real beauty of ukiyo-e because it is difficult to know where the boundaries are and how each subject field impacted on the final conclusion of each respective artist. Of course, some ukiyo-e artists focused heavily on their respective areas of strength or where they could earn a living. Yet it is still intriguing to know that artists could easily flow from religious images to explicit sexual scenes depicting all angles of sexuality.


In another article I wrote about this subject in Modern Tokyo Times I state that “…it is difficult to imagine artists like Rembrandt focusing on a wide array of subjects like Hokusai. After all, when viewing famous pieces of art by Hokusai like the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and the The Great Wave off Kanagawa, it is nigh impossible to relate this with his shunga (erotic) art. This over simplistic comparison may appear rather shallow. However, if you think deeply about this reality then clearly ukiyo-e wasn’t hindered by self-induced or cultural related boundaries, to the extent of Western art during the same period.”


Another feature of ukiyo-e art is the freedom which existed despite periods of government interference. Also, for some ukiyo-e artists even political interference meant little because they were willing to push the boundaries even if this meant prison. This reality highlights that unlike the Christian and Muslim world in this period of history, it is clear that ukiyo-e was much more open in the world of art despite Japan being largely isolated during the Edo period. At the same time, in modern Japan the vagueness of laws related to prostitution, pornography and sexual images through animation are also vague. Therefore, aspects of sexuality in modern Japan also connect with the world of ukiyo-e because it is difficult to know where “the line exists” between what is regulated and unregulated.


Areas of topics within the world of ukiyo-e art are truly diverse. For example, the world of ukiyo-e depicts culture, amazing landscapes, sexuality, elegant fashion, history, nationalism, political satire, stunning ladies, ghosts, strong erotic images, murders, normal life, areas of religion, nature, the underworld, folklore, military ventures, kabuki, tea ceremony, high culture, mythology and an array of other subjects.


I stated in another article which connects modern Japanese culture and ukiyo-e, that when viewing ukiyo-e it is extremely easy to understand why Japanese anime and manga are so creative. This applies to the rich imagination of ukiyo-e in the past and how this historical artistic legacy impacted upon modern artists who fuse their talents within the world of Japanese anime and manga. The connection is visible not so much within the context but within the imagination. After all, nothing is sacred but at the same time both can easily highlight sacredness and high culture. Therefore, the reality of boundaries doesn’t fully exist irrespective of what the national government demands in Japan. Ukiyo-e, anime and manga are based on freedom, creativity, to challenge conventions and other powerful areas.”


Many famous international artists were also inspired by ukiyo-e and this also applies to the many angles of Japanese culture which were depicted in this art form. This applies to Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Félix Bracquemond, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Pierre Bonnard, Camille Pissaro, and many other distinguished international artists. Of course, many of the real meanings of Japanese culture may have been lost “in translation” and likewise “the eye” may mislead because of different thought patterns. However, each of the above named international artists connected with the world of ukiyo-e because of the uniqueness of this art form.


The world of ukiyo-e lives on in many ways because it is embedded within so many intriguing aspects of Japanese culture. Likewise, the modern world of anime and manga can easily be felt within the creativity and lack of boundaries within Japanese ukiyo-e.



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