The Fierce and Fantastic World of Kuniyoshi

While the word “ukiyo-e” often calls to mind elegant courtesans, dramatic actors, and picturesque landscapes, these celebrated works represent only one side of Edo-period innovation. Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) presents a complementary, yet counter point to the prints of artists such as Hokusai and Utamaro. As his fellow masters capture the physical realms of Edo’s floating world, Kuniyoshi presents a phantasmagoria of the fierce, frightening, and the fantastic. Yet, like Hokusai and Hiroshige are to landscape, Utamaro to courtesans, Kuniyoshi belongs to the ukiyo-e canon, bringing Japanese myth, magic, history, and legend to life.

Kuniyoshi, Miyamoto Musashi and the Whale Off the Coast of Hizen, 1848, Ronin Gallery.
Kuniyoshi, Miyamoto Musashi and the Whale Off the Coast of Hizen, 1848, Ronin Gallery.

Welcomed by the changing tide in public taste during the 19th century, Kuniyoshi’s work was nothing less than groundbreaking – in content, in format, and in sheer imaginative capacity. In terms of subject matter, Kuniyoshi ushered a niche print genre to ravenous popularity. Though warrior prints (musha-e) emerged as early as 1646, few woodblock print artists desired these odes to the traditional Japanese warrior. Instead, many artists turned their attention to the dramatic iterations of heroes old and new on the kabuki stage. Kuniyoshi revitalized the warrior in print, breathing palpable drama and contemporary salience into the heroes of the past. Combining heightened bloodshed with fresh tales in imaginative visual tellings, he brought legends to life with unprecedented dynamism, particularly as he mastered the triptych format. Making full use of the three sheets, Kuniyoshi evoked otherworldly realms buzzing with movement and rich in detail. Though the triptychs of his contemporaries can retain some coherence if broken into single-sheet components, Kuniyoshi’s complex compositions are often indivisible. A glimpse of a single oban sheet sparks a startling desire to reach for the tantalizing tale unfolding just beyond the margins. Yet, Kuniyoshi’s ability to transform a genre and revolutionize a format stemmed from the interplay of his boundless imagination and nimble adaptability. It is these core qualities that continue to enrapture contemporary audiences.

“Masterpiece” is not a term to be used lightly. While the term speaks to the best of an artist’s oeuvre, the weight of the word connotes a significance beyond the individual. It refers to a work whose impact reverberates throughout the centuries, across cultures, and throughout time. In the exhibition Kuniyoshi: The Masterpieces, Ronin Gallery explores the ravenous imagination and unmatched skill of Kuniyoshi through such enduring designs. The selected works remain as striking today as they were when first collected by their Edo-period audience. As centuries before, these works continue to capture the curious eye and envelop the unsuspecting viewer in a realm of unparalleled imagination. This unwavering visual impact across eras and oceans establishes Kuniyoshi as not only a key artist of the ukiyo-e tradition, but also a master artist in the global scope.

Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)

 

Yoshiiku, Memorial Portrait of Kuniyoshi, 1861, Ronin Gallery.
Yoshiiku, Memorial Portrait of Kuniyoshi, 1861, Ronin Gallery.

Kuniyoshi was born to a silk dyer on the 15th day of the 11th month of 1797. His family lived in Nihonbashi, the vibrant center of Edo, Japan’s capital and largest city at the time. As the son of an artisan, he grew up immersed in the unique culture of the urban merchant class. Though contemporary scholars know little about his early life, they agree that Kuniyoshi’s remarkable talent became evident at an early age. At 11, Kuniyoshi’s painting of Shoki the Demon Queller caught the eye of the famed ukiyo-e artist Toyokuni, head of the Utagawa school. [1] The image must have left a lasting impression, for he accepted Kuniyoshi as an apprentice three years later. As a member of the Utagawa school, Kuniyoshi spent the early years of his career producing actor prints (yakusha-e), the genre specialty of the school. Though these early works rest outside of the fierce and fantastical subjects for which Kuniyoshi is celebrated today, these prints offer insight into the development of the unique humor and restless imagination that define his later work. In addition to his tutelage with Toyokuni, Kuniyoshi may have briefly studied with Katsukawa Shuntei.

In 1814, Kuniyoshi left Toyokuni’s studio to pursue a career as an independent artist - a leap of faith initially met with little success. Despite his departure from Toyokuni’s workshop, Kuniyoshi continued to produce actor prints. This choice of subject matter set him in direct competition with his former teacher. Unable to erode the Utagawa school’s monopoly on yakusha-e, Kuniyoshi resorted to selling tatami mats to support himself. However, his fortune shifted as his focus moved from the theatrical to the heroic.

As Kuniyoshi entered the field of warrior prints, he sought new inspiration, expanding the genre beyond familiar historical Japanese conflicts. He turned to Takizawa Bakin’s 1805 New Illustrated Edition of the Suikoden (Shinpen Suikogaden). Translated from the 14th century Chinese classic Stories of the Water Margin, this tale of 108 bandit heroes resonated with Edo’s merchant class. In 1827, Kuniyoshi released a short series of single-sheet prints depicting five individual rebels from the tale. Disenchanted by a corrupt samurai class and an overbearing government, viewers found relatable heroes in the Suikoden. From the five initial images, the series grew into a citywide craze. As Kuniyoshi’s choice of subject invigorated the genre, so did its telling. He presents each hero in a solitary portrait, but imbues each image with the drama and tangible action of a larger scene. Released between c.1827 and 1830, the series incited such excitement that it quickly entered its second printing. [2] In fact, even his contemporaries, Kunisada and Kuniyasu, played off Kuniyoshi’s popularity, producing their own interpretations of the Suikoden heroes. [3] This series reversed his fortunes, shook off the shadow of Toyokuni, and propelled Kuniyoshi to fame. From that point on, the public hungered for his portrayals of famous samurai and legendary heroes.

Kuniyoshi, Rori Hakucho Chojun (Zhang Shun), from the series 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden, c. 1828,, Ronin Gallery.
Kuniyoshi, Rori Hakucho Chojun (Zhang Shun), from the series 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden, c. 1828, Ronin Gallery.

Kuniyoshi did not disappoint. He set his imagination free to challenge conventions of ukiyo-e format and subject matter. Kuniyoshi worked in all genres, producing some brilliant landscapes, charming beauties (bijin-ga), and lavishly printed surimono, but his passion lay in the heroic and legendary. [4] In opposition to the peaceful views of a scenic Japan provided by his contemporaries Hokusai and Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi led the rise of heroes, legends, and monsters in ukiyo-e. He embraced the triptych format, allowing his tales of the historic, comic, and fantastic to play out in palpable, panoramic action and enthralling detail. As he redefined the triptych format, he made the single sheet warrior print his own as well, enriching the image with a textual biography or summary of the event portrayed. [5] Kuniyoshi refreshed familiar tales with a heightened sense of fantasy, a more immersive expression of imagination.

Ever eager to explore, he experimented with Western pictorial techniques, likely gleaned from Dutch engravings. For example, he incorporated aspects of one-point perspective, chiaroscuro, and foreshortening into some of his work. Kyoshin’s 19th century account Biographies of the Floating World: Artists of the Utagawa School reveals that Kuniyoshi collected Western newspaper illustrations as well. [6] As he looked outside the woodblock tradition, Kuniyoshi also learned from the greatest talents within his own field.

Kuniyoshi, Takiyasha and Skeleton Spectre in the Ruined Palace at Soma, c. 1844, Ronin Gallery.
Kuniyoshi, Takiyasha and Skeleton Spectre in the Ruined Palace at Soma, c. 1844, Ronin Gallery.

While the floating world revolved around the merchant class, outside its glow lurked a domineering government and strict class stratification. This social tension thickened as famine struck Japan in the late 1830s. The government sought to maintain order in economic chaos by cutting extravagance, a quality that had come to characterize Edo’s urban culture. A series of sumptuary edicts, known as the Tenpo reforms, crashed up on the floating world between 1841-1843. Woodblock prints fell under government fire, both for their physical luxury and visual opulence. On a material level, images could not exceed seven or eight colors nor could they exceed three sheets. [7] In terms of content, the reforms forbade all images of actors and courtesans. Yet, these policies underestimated the resilience of ukiyo-e and the ingenuity of Kuniyoshi.

In the wake of the Tenpo reforms, Kuniyoshi was not only undaunted, but also exhilarated. From landscape prints indulging travels aspirations to comical prints saturated in satire, Kuniyoshi continued to excel across diverse genres throughout the 1840s. [8] Edo period sources praise his kyoga, or “crazy pictures,” and as restrictions loosened in 1847, he even returned to actor prints. In 1844, he began to sign his works with a red paulownia, the yoshikiri seal, in addition to his artist’s name, or go. [9] As he deftly evaded government censorship, Kuniyoshi kept his finger to the pulse of the edokko (people of Edo). From subtly veiled social commentary in the guise an epic go match, to supernatural distractions from a crumbling political reality, Kuniyoshi’s prints resonated with the spirit of the floating world. As the government loosened their restraints on the print industry in 1847, both the artists and the industry soon faced a new challenge: an encroaching world beyond Japan.

Kuniyoshi, Ushiwaka-maru and Benkei on Gojo Bridge from the series Life of Yoshitsune, c. 1840, Ronin Gallery.
Kuniyoshi, Ushiwaka-maru and Benkei on Gojo Bridge from the series Life of Yoshitsune, c. 1840, Ronin Gallery.

In 1853, Commodore Perry arrived in Japan to establish trade relations between the United States and Japan. He left with the promise to return in a year’s time. In light of China’s defeat by the British in the First Opium War (1839-1842), Japan ended over two centuries of “closed-country” policy and accepted the American request. This trade deal was quickly followed by agreements with Russia, Holland, France, and Britain. Ukiyo-e artists found a fresh genre in the foreign people and items that poured into the port at Yokohama. Even as his health declined, Kuniyoshi remained at the vanguard of woodblock printmaking, producing two Yokohama prints (Yokohama-e). By 1856, he had developed palsy and by the spring of 1861, at the age of 64, he died from complications of a stroke.

Kuniyoshi left no written records of his own. Contemporary scholars have sought his presence in the records of others – a 19th century anecdote reveals that he wore a colorful firefighter’s coat, while another suggest that the artist bore the nickname “Scarlet Skin,” rumoring a tattoo that stretched across the artist’s shoulders and back. An 1853 police record places Kuniyoshi at a summer shogakai, or calligraphy and painting party. Among the prominent poets and artists of Edo, the undercover officer recounts how Kuniyoshi shed his kimono, dousing it with a rich, black sumi ink. Like an oversized calligraphy brush, the artist used the garment to paint the familiar form of the Suikoden hero Kyumonryu across the enormous paper laid at his feet. [10]

Though Kuniyoshi’s self-portraits deny the viewer a glimpse of the artist’s face, the sense of Kuniyoshi’s character is clear. It courses through his prints and echoes in the work of his students past and present. He was a true edokko, or “child of Edo,” captivated by the realm of imagination and dedicated to constant innovation. Working in an age of uncertainty, Kuniyoshi bravely welcomed change not as an impediment, but as an opportunity to develop his art. This creative adaptability lends a versatility to his work, imbuing his designs with enduring relevance, whether they face an Edo period or contemporary audience.

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1. Iwakiri, Yuriko, Amy Reigle Newland. Kuniyoshi : Japanese Master of Imagined Worlds, 9.
2. Ibid, 10.
3. Ibid, 10.
4. Iwakiri, 12.
5. Ibid, 15.
6. Clark, Timothy. Kuniyoshi : From the Arthur R. Miller Collection, 23.
7. Ibid, 24.
8. Ibid, 24
9. ibid, 27.
10. Iwakiri, 11.