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Extending the Narrative: Mike Magers and Ukiyo-e

Written by
Madison Folks
Published on
June 5, 2023 at 4:34:46 PM PDT June 5, 2023 at 4:34:46 PM PDTth, June 5, 2023 at 4:34:46 PM PDT

From dives off the coast near Toba to intimate views within the ateliers of artisans, Michael Magers imbues each of his photographs with a story. These split-second narratives lend a solemnity to fleeting moments of beauty unfolding within a Tokyo sumo stable or a bustling izakaya. While these moments are gone in the click of the shutter, they resonate through centuries of Japanese history. In Extending the Narrative, Ronin Gallery invites you to follow a few of these thematic threads into the past. We’ve paired a small selection of ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) with Magers photographs to explore the themes of sumo, tattoo, ama (female free divers), and shokunin (craftspeople).


Kuniyoshi. “Sumo Wrestlers Shiranui Dakuemon (center left), Tsurugizan Taniemon (center right), with Referee Shikimori Inosuke (left) and Judge Retired Wrestler Miyagino (right).” c. 1843. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery. JP-104226. $9800. https://www.roningallery.com/sumo-wrestlers-shiranui-dakuemon-center-left-tsurugizan-taniemon-center-right-with-refree-1

In Kuniyoshi’s design, the wrestlers Shiranui Dakuemon (left) and Tsurugizan Taniemon (right) collide in the center, each bracing himself with muscled leg grounded at the far edge of the composition. The tassels of their mawashi swing wildly by their waists, conveying the powerful movement of the match. To the far left, the referee Shikimori Inosuke holds his gunbai (fan used to communicate instructions and decisions during a match) aloft, lunging forward, head cocked, and eyes locked on the wrestlers. To the far right, retired wrestler Miyagino crosses his arms and furrows his brow, concentrating on his role as judge (shinpan) to the match. Published by Fujiokaya, the triptych presents the most exciting sumo match of 1843. Its fame came in part from its location–a special ring built on the grounds of the shogun’s residence–and in part from its audience–the shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi himself.

(Left) Michael Magers. “Untitled Sumo, 2012.” 2023. Photograph. Ronin Gallery. JP-210242. $980 https://www.roningallery.com/Untitled-Sumo
(Right) Michael Magers. “Untitled Sumo 2, 2012.” 2023. Photograph. Ronin Gallery. JP-210240. $980https://www.roningallery.com/Untitled-2-Sumo

To properly capture this event Fujiokaya commissioned the popular ukiyo-e artist Kuniyoshi Utagawa to capture this moment with all the drama and action for which he was renowned. Through full use of the sweeping horizontality of the triptych format, Kuniyoshi emphasizes the strength and size of the wrestlers, identifying each figure with a cartouche. The muscled bodies of the rikishi (sumo wrestlers) gain a different sense of drama in Magers black-and-white photographs. In 2012, Magers photographed a morning practice at a sumo stable in Tokyo. As light falls across each powerful curve, Magers emphasizes, in his words, the “grace to sumo that seems to defy physics.”


(Left) “Fully Suited, 2016.” 2023. Photograph. Ronin Gallery. JP-210239. $980 https://www.roningallery.com/Fully-Suited
(Right) “Horiren the First – Tebori, 2016.” 2023. Photograph. Ronin Gallery. Ronin. JP-210248. $980. https://www.roningallery.com/Horien-1st-Tebori

As one of the oldest forms of body modification, the tattoo is a complicated cultural symbol. While the popularity of traditional Japanese tattooing soars worldwide, attitudes in Japan are more complex. Shaped by centuries of controversy, the Japanese tattoo simultaneously embodies the forbidden and the dissonant to an out-group and sense of belonging and cultural identity for an in-group. In Japan today, tattooed individuals continue to face discriminatory policies due to lingering associations of tattoos with the organized crime syndicate, the yakuza. Michael Magers explores Japanese tattooing at the side of Horiren the First, documenting her work and the clients who wear it. In describing the photograph titled “Fully Suited,” Magers recalls “one evening at an izakaya near her studio, a group of clients stripped down to show off the depth and detail of her work.” Horiren herself can be seen in the other photograph, working on a client’s back through tebori, or hand-tattooing.

(Left) Tokyokui III. “The Imitation Kisen: Actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Oniazami Seishichi” from the series Selected Underworld Characters for the Six Poetic Immortals. 1861. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery. JP-94598. $780. https://www.roningallery.com/kabuki-actor-ichikawa-kodanji-iv-as-oniazami-kiyoshichi
(Right) Toyokuni III. “Tsuchinoto: Danshichi Kurobei and Mikawaya Giheiji” from the series Playful Comparison of Pictures. 1861. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery. JPR-209727. $780. https://www.roningallery.com/Danshichi-Kurobei-and-Mikawaya-Giheiji

During the 19th century, the presence of tattoos, such as those adorning on the actors in Toyokuni III’s prints, suggested that the wearer might have been an otokodate (street warriors), member of the fire fighting force, or a rough-and-tumble character of Edo’s underworld. In “The Imitation Kisen: Actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Oniazami Seishichi,” this mitate (parody) series juxtaposes famous thieves with a group of six 9th century poets known as the Rokkasen, or “six immortal poets.” Underworld characters proved popular on the kabuki stage. While the image of the poet Kisen can be seen woven in the fabric in the lower right, a portrait of the Actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV in the role of the bandit Oniazami Seishichi dominates the composition. As thistle blooms in red and blue down the actor’s right arm, this tattoo evokes the bandit’s nickname of “Demon Thistle.” In a second actor portrait, Toyokuni III covers the back and arms of the Osaka otokodate Danshichi Kurobe with the serpentine body of a dragon, the crackle of flames, and swirling clouds. The inset portrait presents Danshichi’s victim and father-in-law, Mikawaya Giheiji.


Utamaro. “Abalone Divers Hunting in Enoshima.” c. 1791. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery. JPR-209650. $5800. https://www.roningallery.com/Abalone-Divers-Hunting-in-Enoshima

To the right of the rare hexaptych by Utamaro, a narrow boat bobs atop the waves as a trio of ama (sea women) swim beside it. Dressed only in loincloths, their hair flows behind them with the current. Two hold their knives between their teeth–their catch of abalone in hand–while the third uses her knife the pry a shell from the sea. As the boat’s bow nears the rocky coast, one loosely clothed ama holds her basket at the ready to collect the catch, while others rest on the shore, combing their hair or dipping a foot in the water. To the far left, a crouching ama reaches into her basket, likely to sell the fresh seafood to the two women beside her. The women in this design that are dressed with their hair coiffed are not ama, but likely pilgrims bound for Benten Shrine on Enoshima. Every six years, the shrine would display its treasures, an event that attracted many visitors. It has been suggested that Utamaro’s design intended to capitalize on this public anticipation.

(Left)Michael Magers. “Tako-san” from the series Ama-san, 2014.” 2023. Photograph. Ronin Gallery. JP-210237. $980. https://www.roningallery.com/Tako-san
(Right) Michael Magers. “Untitled” from the series Ama-san, 2014.” 2023. Photograph. Ronin Gallery. JP-210238. $980.https://www.roningallery.com/Untitled-from-the-series-Ama-San

The term ama, or “sea women,” refers to the free-diving women that make a living diving for seaweed, pearls, shellfish, and other seafood. It is said that the tradition dates back to the 8th century. In Utamaro’s time, these women were perceived as free spirited with coarse manners, idealized and sexualized in ukiyo-e through works such as Utamaro’s erotic album Utamakura (1788). Over the centuries, the number of women working as ama has diminished considerably. Though Utamaro’s ama are forever young, most women in the profession today are well over the age of 60. Diving with wetsuits, goggles, and flippers they can descend 20 meters below the ocean surface. In 2014, Magers visited a group of ama in Toba, Mie Prefecture, where ama have been diving for at least 2000 years. During his visit, he joined them on their dives, capturing them at work among the waves. In place of the idealized archetypes of Utamaro, Magers captures the spirit and skill of these impressive women.


Kogyo. “Kokaji” from the series A Great Mirror of Noh Pictures. 1936. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery. JP-210222. $480.https://www.roningallery.com/Kokaji

Shimmering with metallic pigment, Kogyo presents a key moment from the noh play Kokaji. In the play, the emperor requests a blade from the swordsmith Kokaji Munechika, but without a suitable apprentice, the swordsmith refuses. When the emperor’s messenger insists, Kokaji goes to pray at Inari Shrine for help from the deity. A young boy (Inari in disguise) encourages the swordsmith and promises to act as his smithing partner. Later, Inari appears to the swordsmith and together they complete the emperor’s sword. In Kogyo’s composition, the swordsmith Kokaji raises his hammer above the sword blade, working in tandem with the deity Inari, identified by the leaping fox atop the crown.

Michael Magers. “Genrokuro Matsunaga” from the series Shokunin, 2014. 2023. Photograph. Ronin Gallery. JP- 210241. $980.https://www.roningallery.com/Genrokuro-Matsunaga-from-the-Shokunin-Series

Though many swordsmiths shifted profession following the Meiji Restoration (1868), some carried on in their field. The process of making a sword takes several months to forge and multiple artisans to add the decorative elements such as engravings or inlays. In May 2014, Magers experienced the sword making process during his visit with the swordsmith Matsunaga Genrokuro. Eyes trained on the blade, Matsunaga holds the sword to the light as he polishes it. At his studio in Arao, Kumamoto Prefecture, Matsunaga invites visitors to watch him at work, view his collections of antique arms and armor, and witness the sharpness of his creations through tameshigiri (a “test cut” of the sword through a rolled mat).


Michael Magers. “Aya Iwai – Noh ” from the series Shokunin, 2014. 2023. Photograph. Ronin Gallery. JP-210252. $980.https://www.roningallery.com/Aya-Iwai-Noh-Masks-from-the-series-Shokunin

The use of noh masks dates to the late Muromachi Period (1392-1573). Around the 16th century, the specialization of mask making within familial lineages allowed new directions for mask styles. Today, around 50 of these mask styles form the archetypes of noh masks. A mask maker’s goal is to create a face that is static and neutral, yet one that will come alive with each movement of the actor wearing it. Carved from hinoki cypress, the application of a mix of crushed shell powder and animal glue creates the signature white surface of the face. Colors and highlights are added through mineral pigments or metallic powders. A single mask can take a year to complete–from the sculpting of the wood to the final flourishes. Magers captures the hand of the Kyoto-based mask maker Iwai Aya as she the applies the finest strands of hair to the side of the mask. As the mask looks out at the viewer, the artisan’s hand brings it to life.

Kogyo. “Unrin’in” from the series A Great Mirror of Noh Pictures. 1936. Woodblock print. Ronin Gallery. JP-210223. $480.https://www.roningallery.com/Unrinin

In Kogyo’s print from A Great Mirror of Noh Pictures, one can see a mask such as those created by Iwai. Kogyo’s delicate use of color, metallic embellishments, and attention to costume brings the theatrical art of noh to life. This print presents a moment from the play Unrin’in. The play follows Kinmitsu as he travels to Unrin Temple in Kyoto to visit a location from Ise Monogatari (Tales of Ise). In act two, Ariwara no Narihira, a central character in Ise Monogatari, appears and performs a dance. At Kogyo’s hand, Ariwara no Narihira appears mid-dance, one arm curved gracefully behind his head, while the other extends an open fan from a glimmering sleeve.

Want to see more of Michael Magers photography? Follow this link to view the exhibition Through a Lens: Michael Magers in its entirety. The exhibition will be on view in the gallery through June 23, 2023.