Brimming with wistful beauties and romantic allusions, kuchi-e, literally translated to “mouth pictures” or “opening pictures,” served as frontispiece illustrations for popular novels and literary magazines from the 1890s through the 1910s. Bound or inserted within the text, these images transcended simple illustration to capture the characters, atmosphere and sentiment of each story as a whole. To their original audience, these eye-catching images sold books and captured the imagination. Today, these works remain enchanting as they offer insight into turn of the century fashions, sentiments, and artistic ideals.
While the popularity of woodblock printmaking waned with the influx of lithography and photography, kuchi-e reinvigorated the medium. Kuchi-e artists incorporated both Western-style and Japanese pictorial techniques in their designs, from the flat compositions of ukiyo-e to the heavy-lashes and down-turned eyes of Raphael’s Madonna. Many of these artists maintained a stable income through kuchi-e and newspaper illustration while pursuing a career in nihonga, or “Japanese-style painting.” The influence of this training can be seen in the nuanced use of color, loose style, and heightened realism of the scenes.
Kuchi-e were printed in standard sizes, either 22 by 30 cm or 14 x 20 cm. The former would be folded into thirds, the latter folded in half in order to fit safely within the pages of the book. This allowed the reader to expand and store the image as desired. The margin, as seen in Kiyokata's' "Beauty and Dog Viewing Ship" above, was used for binding. Due to the active nature of these prints, it is normal to find creases and light soiling on the images. Today the genre is known for its brilliant printing. Many prints feature embellishments such as metallic pigment, embossing, or burnishing to create a lacquer-like impression. Through the technique of sashiage artists could create the impression of watercolor. To achieve this effect, the artist would paint the proof from the key block in full color and detail, rather than loosely indicating to the printer the use of color for each aspect of a print. The printer then would follow this detailed painting as a guide, approximating watercolor washes with shallow carving that allowed complex shading.
As the role of the woodblock print shifted throughout the Meiji Period, so did that of the novel. Kuchi-e gained popularity with an unprecedented boom of literacy in Japan. New literary movements elevated the novel from a low form of entertainment to a respectable and popular form of expression. Authors broke from formal written language and incorporated contemporary language for written dialogue. Novels traded formulaic tales of forbidden love warning against vice for explorations of human emotion, introspection, and reflection on society. The most prominent kuchi-e publishers were Shun’yodo and Hakubunkan, the second of which published the literary magazine Bungei Kurabu. The magazine included woodblock prints in nearly every issue, resulting in nearly 300 prints during its run. As many of the novels adorned with kuchi-e focused on romance, a large number of these designs feature beautiful women.