"Images of the Floating World": The Second Golden Age (Part 1)

The Second Golden Age

After a period of stagnation, woodblock prints went through a major resurgence in the middle of the nineteenth century, as a group of major artists rejuvenated the field, and changes in the governing scene allowed the field to break free of crippling government restrictions which had been imposed on it in the preceding decades.

The artistic dam was broken by Hokusai, whose great series '36 Views of Fuji' was the fruition of a life dedicated to art, and to constant improvement and learning. Once public taste, by now desperate for something fresh, had ratified his new direction, other younger artists such as Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) and Kuniyoshi (1798 - 1861) the freedom to explore new areas, although expanding the scope of woodblock prints to make landscape prints a major part of its subject matter was perhaps the biggest change.

At the same time, increased stagnation and ineffectuality in the feudal Shogunal government as a whole had reverberations in the restricted world of ukiyo-e. Previously, the government had tried to crack down on ukiyo-e over a number of issues, but as the government drifted into ineffectuality in the middle of the nineteenth century, the world of ukiyo-e managed to evade many of the restrictions which had been placed on them.

One concerned the lavish nature of the prints. In their attempt to ensure social stability, the government had enacted strict sumptuary laws, to prevent the wealth chonin from upsetting the social order by flaunting their wealth. These limitations, such as on the number of different blocks allowed to be used in a colour-print, had a crimping impact on the field, until the always-inventive chonin developed ways around them (e.g. by re-use of single blocks with different colours).

The other concerned the subject matter (particularly courtesans and kabuki actors), which was deemed to be harmful to social uprightness. One decree complained that:

"The trash known as nishiki-e ... [is] detrimental to public morals; henceforth, not only the production of new prints, but the buying and selling of existing stocks also, will be forbidden."
Thankfully, the government lacked both the will and the means to impose these draconian restrictions, and the most cursory of fig-leaves regarding content (such as camouflaging prints of actors with landscape backgrounds, a dissimulation that surely fooled no-one) were enough of a genuflection to the authority of the government to allow the field to proceed as it wished.


This page shows all the prints, along with as much information as we currently have about each print; this includes the information which will be on the label cards with each print. If you click on the thumbnail image of any print, it will take you to a full-sized image of the print.

All artist names are given the Japanese style, with family name first; also the names given are usually their 'go' (literally, 'art-name', the rough equivalent of a pen-name for Western writers), rather than their legal names.

All prints are produced with the nishiki-e technique, unless otherwise specifically noted.

Some of the actors' names have not had their proper generation attached/checked (e.g. Ichikawa Danjūrō IV), and in the explanatory text their names are often missing the proper macrons (signs which indicate that the vowel is long, rather than short) over the vowels which need them (e.g. 'ū', 'ō').

The Prints

Thumbnail Artist Date Technique / Format Title / Subject Commentary
Katsushika Hokusai (1760 - 1849) ca. 1806 yoko-e oban "Act XI", from the series 'Kanadehon Chūshingura' ('The Treasury of Loyal Retainers', known as the 'Syllabary Chushingura') This print depicts the Ronin attacking at night in the snow, from the next to last act of the Chushingura, the great Kabuki drama based on the tale of the 47 Ronin.

After careful preparation, the Ronin arrive at the mansion of the dastardly Kira, at night, while the snow is falling. They direct archers onto the roof, to allow control of the compound around the house when they attack; in particular, to prevent those inside from sending for help. As this stage of the preparations for the assault is completed, another member of the group breaches the main gate with the aid of a huge maul.

Even in this print from the end of the first half of his career, we see that Hokusai has mastered Western perspective techniques, but that he feels free to discard them (such as in the Japanese treatment of the buildings) when it does not suit his overall compositional goals.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760 - 1849) ca. 1829-32 yoko-e oban "Shinshū Suwako (Lake Suwa in Shinano Province)", from the series 'Fugaku sanjū-rokkei (36 Views of Fuji)' This print is from his most famous and greatest series, the "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji", considered by some the greatest prints of all of ukiyo-e. It contains such well-known images as "Great Wave off Kanagawa", which is probably the single most famous image from all of Japanese art, and one which even the average person will recognize. As mentioned in Hokusai's biography, this series had a profound effect on European artists, particularly the Impressionists. It started to come out around 1829, when Hokusai was sixty-nine. It actually contains forty-six prints - apparently the commercial success of the series caused it to be extended.

This print is generally considered one of the best in the series. The series was not numbered, so there is no particular order. It is a so-called aizuri print, one in which blue predominates. (The blue is an imported pigment, Berlin blue, newly introduced into Japan, and fashionable because of its novelty.) Even the keyblock is printed in a dark blue - as are the keyblocks in all early printings of most of this series, many of which are also aizuri-e.

In this print we see Lake Suwa, which is about 3 miles by 2 1/2; it lies about 120 miles West of Edo. In this district two important roads converged; the Koshukaido and the Kisokaido. (The latter was an alternate route to the Tokaido between Edo and Kyoto; the Kisokaido ran through the mountains, whereas the Tokaido ran along the edge of the sea.)

Fujiyama can been seen just above the castle - a rather small presence in a print supposedly dedicated to it. It is said that the lake is so far from the mountain that it can only be seen on an exceptionally clear day. On the left we can see the town of Shimo Suwa ('Lower Suwa'), which grew up around an old castle (which we can also see) built on the edge of the lake. (The castle is still there today, although somewhat farther from the lake - apparently the lake has shrunk since Hokusai's day.) On the lake, the boat is probably fishing for smelt, which the lake was famed for.

This particular print is somewhat faded (and is also heavily trimmed), but in a good early impression the sky is a subtle light pink, indicating that it is morning. The print is an excellent example of Hokusai's extremely characteristic draftsmanship, which was unlike that of any other Japanese print artist.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760 - 1849) ca. 1831-34 (original - this print is probably from an 1840s edition, using recut blocks) yoko-e oban "Hietsu no sakai tsuribashi (The Suspension Bridge on the Border of Hida and Etchū Provinces)", from the series 'Shokoku meikyō kiran (Wondrous views of Famous Bridges in All the Provinces)' Hokusai capitalized on the major success of his '36 Views of Fuji' series by quickly doing a number of other landscape series, on themes such as waterfalls, poets, and this one, on bridges, of which this print is one of the most memorable and compositionally fantastic. It shows a farming couple carrying loads across a fragile and unsteady rope suspension bridge (which is at its most dangerous and uncertain when people are in the middle, as here); the valley below them is filled with cryptomeria trees.

This print combines elements of both Asian and Western art: some of the clouds are of the kind he would have seen in the Western art he studied, whereas others are typically Japanese; the picture uses some Western perspective ideas, but in other ways, such as the low horizon, it follows Chinese landscape painting precepts. The combination is effective because it allows him to place the couple, and the peril of their traversal, at the center of the image.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) ca. 1833 (original - this reproduction ca. 1890) yoko-e oban "Nihonbashi asa no kei (Morning view at Nihonbashi Bridge", #1 from the series 'Tōkaidō gojusan tsugi no uchi' ('53 Stations of the Tokaido', known as the 'Hoeido Tokaido') This series, which Hiroshige drew after being part of a formal procession down the Tōkaidō (literally, "Eastern Sea Road"), carrying a gift of horses from the Shogun to the Emperor, was a tremendous commercial success (some scenes from it sold more than 10,000 copies, almost unheard of for a woodblock print), and secured his reputation. He went on to do many other series, but the Tokaido remained a favourite; he produced over three dozen series on this theme.

Nihonbashi (literally, "Japan bridge") in the center of the Shogunal capital of Edo was the starting point for the five principal highways of Japan, of which the most important was the Tokaido, which led to Kyōto, the Imperial capital. Distances to all places in Japan were (and still are) reckoned from this bridge.

In this print, we see the formal procession which Hiroshige was a part of starting out. The wooden gate in the foreground is open, to allow travelers to pass; the wooden signboards on the left contain government regulations.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) ca. 1833 (original - this reproduction ca. 1890) yoko-e oban "Hakone kosui zu (The Lake at Hakone)", #11 from the series 'Tōkaidō gojusan tsugi no uchi' ('53 Stations of the Tokaido', known as the 'Hoeido Tokaido') This print shows station number 11, Hakone, which is the pass that leads part-way across the base of the Izu Peninsula, between Suruga Bay and Sagami Bay (which is at the mouth of Edo Bay); it lies East of Mt Fuji.

It one of the more highly regarded prints in the series, and one that it is claimed had a profound influence on the art of the French Impressionist painters.

Hakone Pass, in addition to being very scenic, was the site of the most important seki, which made use of the topography in its system of travel control. At the barrier, all travelers were examined, both to prevent arms from being brought into Edo (for a possible revolt), and to stop the families of the leading feudal lords (who were forced to live in Edo, where they served as hostages) from leaving Edo.

The procession of the feudal lord with which Hiroshige travelled can be seen descending the foot of the narrow mountain pathway, and Mt. Fuji is visible in the distance.

As is common in this series, Hiroshige has taken some liberties with the landscape, moving the mountains in the foreground from one side of Fuji to the other; however, it is still recognizable.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) ca. 1833 (original - this reproduction ca. 1890) yoko-e oban "Kambara yori no yuki (Night Snow at Kambara)", #16 from the series 'Tōkaidō gojusan tsugi no uchi' ('53 Stations of the Tokaido', known as the 'Hoeido Tokaido') This print purports to show station number 16, Kambara, which is on the coast South of Mt Fuji. It is on Suruga Bay, which is separated by the Izu Peninsula from Sagami Bay, which is at the mouth of Edo Bay.

This particular print is perhaps his most famous, and most highly-regarded print; indeed, many regard it as one of the finest woodblock prints ever. It is generally regarded as one of the two masterpieces of the series (and by many as the best single print in that series).

However, like Shono, (which is widely regarded as the other of the two best prints from this series), the landscape in this print is completely imaginary! (It is perhaps no accident that this is the case.)

People have searched around Kambara for the scene portrayed here, and it does not appear to exist. Furthermore, it rarely snows in this area, and certainly couldn't have when Hiroshige passed through, which was in early summer.

Although printed mostly in shades of gray - or perhaps because of that - it captures perfectly the feel of the still and silence of a late evening after a heavy fall of snow.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) ca. 1833 (original - this reproduction ca. 1890) yoko-e oban "Shōno hakuu (Driving Rain at Shono)", #46 from the series 'Tōkaidō gojusan tsugi no uchi' ('53 Stations of the Tokaido', known as the 'Hoeido Tokaido') This print is of station number 46, Shono, which is on the plain between the coast and the mountain range between the bay of Ise (at the head of which lies Nagoya), and Lake Biwa (the large lake at the south end of which is Kyoto), very near the end of the Tokaido.

This print is one of the two most famous and highly regarded prints from that series. However, as best anyone can tell, the landscape in this print is completely imaginary, as the hills are totally fictitious. Hiroshige seems to have changed the scenery to fit the composition he desired for this print.

This print shows a group of travellers caught in a downpour, and it captures the feeling of a violent rainstorm perfectly; one can almost watch the bamboo reeling from the gusts of wind.

The two bearers on the left, going uphill, are carrying a palanquin. On the umbrella which the second person going downhill is struggling to fold (lest it be damaged or blown away), Hiroshige has impishly added the publisher's name, and the title of the series.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) ca. 1833 yoko-e oban "Chiryu shuka umaichi (The Summer Horse Fair at Chiryu")", #40 from the series 'Tōkaidō gojusan tsugi no uchi' ('53 Stations of the Tokaido', known as the 'Hoeido Tokaido') This print is of station number 40, Chirifu, which is on the plain just East of Nagoya, near Atsumi Bay, which is at the mouth of Ise Bay, fairly near the end of the Tokaido.

It shows the famous annual horse-auction at Chirifu, held in the spring. Hiroshige actually passed through in mid-summer, and would have missed this, so this depiction is imaginary, but he would have seen the locale, and had the event described to him.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) ca. mid 1830s - early 1840s yoko-e oban "Youchi no yon hikitori (Act XI, Scene 4 [sic]: The Night Attack - Stopped)", from the series 'Chūshingura' ('Treasury of Loyalty', known as the 'Senichi Chushingura'); this image is actually from the fifth scene, but Hiroshige has mis-labelled it This print depicts another scene from the Chushingura, the great Kabuki drama based on the tale of the 47 Ronin. In this print, the Ronin are on their way to their master's grave, after killing the dastardly Kira, to lay down Kira's head (which one of the Ronin is carrying, in a box) as an offering.

Outside the palace of Matsudaira no Kami, three retainers have been sent out into the street by the Daimyo of Sendai, who had heard of the actions of the Ronin, to invite them in to his palace for rest and refreshments. Several sparrows are seen flying above the men; sparrows were part of the crest of the Daimyo of Sendai.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) ca. 1838-42 yoko-e oban From an untitled series known as the 'Second Large Fish' series Hiroshige was also a master of the still-life; this print, apparently originally commissioned for a poetry club, shows tobiuo (blue-spined flying fish) and ishimochi (also called guchi or shiroguchi; white croaker). The season portrayed here is the 5th month; the flower is a lily.

This series was apparently conceived as a vehicle for poems, and it was originally printed privately as a de luxe folding album of kyōka verses. This one reads:

It is almost summer.
Women divers are a work in the bay;
the flying fish leap; the cuckoo sings.
As they splash to the surface
the women call out in voices like bird song.
It was later reprinted commercially; some of the later editions bear censor seals which are missing on the earliest editions.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) ca. 1838-42 yoko-e oban From an untitled series known as the 'Second Large Fish' series This print, from the same series as the other, shows suzuki (Japanese sea-perch) and kimmmedai (Alfonsino). The season portrayed here is the 8th month; the plant is shiso (beefsteak plant).

The poem on this one reads:

The sea bass sparkles
like the dew on yellow flowers
or the glint in a woman's black hair

Still life ukiyo-e are very unusual, and images of fish even rarer; this series may represent a Western influence on Hiroshige; the images are certainly drawn in a Western style.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) 1843 yoko-e oban "Sagami Ōyama Ryōben no taki ("Waterfall at Ryoben, Oyama Mountains)", from the series 'Kantō meisho zue (Pictures of Famous Places in the Kanto)' This print is from the rare series 'Views of Famous Places in the Kanto' (which is the fertile plain around Tokyo). As an indication of how rare this series is, the canonical Hiroshige reference work, Strange's "The Color-Prints of Hiroshige" does not list it in its very comprehensive listing of Hiroshige's prints, or refer to it in any way. So, it is unknown how many prints are in the series (it was not unknown for a series to be started and abandoned part way through).

In this print, we see the falls themselves, with a pool at the bottom of the falls in which a number of people, apparently all men - although men and women commonly mix in outdoor hot springs - are sitting under the waterfall. This indicates that possibly they are performing a misogi (ritual cleansing), where young men stand in prayer beneath a freezing waterfall to cleanse the soul. The function of the tall (apparently wooden) poles is unknown, although perhaps they are somehow related to a Shinto religious ritual, as might be the head-coverings on the bathers. Being set in the mountains, clouds which are low to the ground twine in among the rocks and trees.

Interestingly, this print differs quite substantially in its colours from the only other image we have been able to locate in a catalogue, one in the James A. Michener collection at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. In that copy, the large boulders in the center are a blue rather than a grey, as is the roof of the left-most building; other rocks have ochre highlights; the building walls are a mixture of grey and ochre areas, rather than brown; and the fence around the pool is blue, rather than a grey-blue mix.

It it not clear why these two prints differ so much. Normally, with Hiroshige prints, later copies often do not have as careful color selection and bokashi as earlier copies. However, this explanation would appear to be unworkable here, as both prints appear to be fairly early examples. Perhaps these differences result from the opening stages of print production, where the printer (usually under the guidance of the artist) would often make modifications to the color scheme to find out what was most effective. If so, this print would represent a rarely-seen stage in the production of woodblock prints.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) Original drawings ca. 1843-5, First printed 1928, this edition 1948 yoko-e oban "Ryōgoku yuki no yugure (Twilight View of the Snow-Clad Ryogoku Bridge)", #H from the series 'Toto yukimi hakkei (Eight Snow Scenes of Edo)' This shows the Ryogoku Bridge, the same bridge seen in the earlier print by Toyohiro.

The story of the publication of this series is without doubt one of the strangest of all Hiroshige's works. He prepared the original drawings in about 1843-45, when he was at the height of his powers, and they were approved for publication by the censor, but for now unknown reasons, they never were. Somehow, they made their way to Europe, where they came into the possession of M. Emile Javal, a judge in the Civil Court of the Seine, Paris, France. In 1927, they were seen by Shotaro Sato, and M. Javal gave his permission for them to be published.

The drawings were in black and white only, as was usual for the initial drawings, and had no directions by Hiroshige for their colouring. Back in Japan, Shotaro Sato hired the best block carvers and printers he could; the advice of an artist who was a color-print expert was also sought. Once the key-blocks had been carved, as many of Hiroshige's snow-scenes as possible were gathered together, to study his methods of coloring them; and many trial colorings were made in an endeavour to colour them as Hiroshige would have. This took a lot of time, but eventually a color scheme was devised for each of the eight subjects which it was felt was suitable for the image; the prints were then carefully produced.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) ca. 1848-50 yoko-e oban "Kusatsu", #53 from the series 'Tōkdaidō gojūsan-tsugi' ('53 Stations of the Tokaido', known as the 'Reisho Tokaido') Prints from this Tokaido series are fairly rare; it is believed that the blocks were destroyed in a fire after only a modest number of copies had been struck. The popular name of the series, 'Reisho', comes from the style of calligraphy used in the title cartouche.

In this image of the Kusatsu stage, near the end of the Tokaido, we see a panoramic view of Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, just to the North-East of Kyōto, with Mt. Hiei and its surrounding mountains in the background.

Lake Biwa's name comes from its shape: a biwa is a four-stringed lute, a musical instrument brought to Japan from China. It used to be known as Lake Omi, and views of Chikubu, Oki, and other islands have long been famous, and are known as the Omi Hakkei (The Eight Scenic Views of Omi).

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) 1855, 7th month tate-e oban "Mariko echikū meibutsu tororojiru o hisagu (Mariko: The selling of yam soup, the specialty of this place)", #21 from the series 'Gojūsan-tsugi meisho zue ('Famous Views of the 53 Stations', known as the 'Upright Tokaido') Toward the end of his artistic career, Hiroshige started to explore the vertical format for landscape prints; this is his only Tokaido series in this format.

Note the ukiyo-e prints on the wall of the tea-house on the left of the main street of this country village - an uncommon view of ukiyo-e prints in use.

This station was famous for its broth of grated yams, unique to this station on the Tokaido; the signs on all the houses up and down the street advertise it. In the tea-house on the left, we see a patron consuming what is probably this famous soup.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) 1857, 5th month intercalary tate-e oban "Ryōgoku Ehōin Moto-Yanagibashi (Ehoin Temple in Ryogoku and the Moto-Yanagi Bridge)", #5 from the series 'Meisho Edo hyakkei (100 Famous Views of Edo)' This print depicts an early spring morning in Edo, on a day when a sumo wrestling tournament is to be held at the Ekoin temple.

In the foreground, on the left, we see the drum tower for the wrestling tourney; part of the drum is visible at the top of the tower, and the two white sacred bonten indicate the weather is good, and the tournament is on. (The only spectators allowed would be men, by the way - women were only allowed to watch practise sessions.)

In the background, we see some boats on the Sumida river, perhaps carrying produce to morning markets, and in the center, the Moto-Yanagibashi Bridge of the title. (The willow tree, one of what was originally a pair, just to the right of the bridge, gave the bridge its name, 'Former Willow Bridge' - 'Former' as a new 'Willow' bridge was later built.)

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) 1857, 8th month tate-e oban "Ueno sannai Tsuki no matsu (Moon Pine, Ueno)", #89 from the series 'Meisho Edo hyakkei (100 Famous Views of Edo)' This compositionally innovative print shows a famous pine, which makes a perfect "moon frame" for the opposite bank of Shinobazunoike Lake. In line with the taste for naming famous or unusual trees, it was known as the "Moon Pine" not just because the looping branch emulates the shape of a full moon, but because other phases could be distinguished elsewhere on the tree.

This branch was blown off in a storm early in the Meiji Era, and the tree itself was no longer extant when a history written in 1911 mentioned it.

Ueno Park, in what is now Tokyo, is one of the most popular parks in Japan, particularly during cherry blossom season at the end of March and beginning of April. It occupies the site of the former Kan'eiji temple, associated with the Tokugawa Shoguns who built the temple to guard Edo Castle from the North-East. The temple was destroyed during the Boshin War (1868-69), during the struggles to overthrow the sclerotic Tokugawa Shogunate.

The towers in the distant background are fire towers, established to maintain a strict watch in the very flammable Japanese cities, which were periodically devastated by huge fires.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) and Utagawa Kunisada (signing Toyokuni) (1786 - 1865) 1852, 7th month tate-e oban "Jōshichi kashi (The Riverbank at Joshichi)", from the series 'Tōto kōmei kaitei tsukushi (A Set of Famous Restaurants of the Eastern Capital)' The prints in this series are a collaboration between Hiroshige and Kunisada; Hiroshige produced the landscapes in the backgrounds, and Kunisada the large figure of the actor in the foreground.

The actors and roles are difficult to identify, because this series was produced after a government crackdown on actor prints, which they considered to be undermining public morals. Publishers responded by producing prints which were notionally landscapes or other similar themes, but which in fact were thinly disguised actor prints. However, to provide a veneer of deniability, the actor and role information were left off.

This print, considered to be one of the masterpieces of this excellent collaborative set, shows an unidentified actor in an unknown role (various sources give conflicting guesses), fighting with a giant carp which he has in a hold under his arm. Japanese mythology has a number of tales of men fighting with giant carp, and this image may be related to them.

In the background (in a square cartouche) is a snowscape of the riverbank at Joshichi, near the Imado Bridge and Shrine. Reputedly built by the first Kamakura Shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147? - 1199), in accordance with an Imperial order, the Imado Shrine is dedicated to love. Single people go there to pray that they will find partners; prayers are written on hanging wooden plaques, so the wind can distribute the prayers for those who need them. The boards often contain images of a pair of beckoning cats, the guardian symbol of the shrine; a pair, because you need a partner to be in love.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) and Utagawa Kunisada (signing Toyokuni) (1786 - 1865) 1853, 1st month tate-e oban "Nagoya Sanza", from the series 'Tōto kōmei kaitei tsukushi (A Set of Famous Restaurants of the Eastern Capital)' An unknown actor in the role of Nagoya Sanza, from the play 'Ukiyozuka Hiyoku no Inazuma (The Floating World's Pattern and Matching Lightning Bolts)', written in 1823 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV. Originally based on a comic book which showed the daily life of famous historical characters fallen on hard times, this play dramatized the stories of two handsome young samurai, creating two characters who have now become standards.

Nagoya Sanza was a ronin who was a flashy hero of the late 16th century; he became the model of masculine beauty in the earliest days of the Kabuki theatre. The play shows the relationships within a group that included him, his lover, and his enemy, Fuwa Banzaemon (who had killed Sanza's father), as all these characters are thrown into the nightlife of Edo's Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, including their final confrontation of the two men in the middle of the Yoshiwara, with the cherry trees in full bloom.

The background shows the En-en-tei restaurant in Sanya-tanaka (an alternative name for the Yoshiwara, where the action of the play takes place.)

Note the sushi (tuna, gizzard shad, mackerel, young sea bream and some others) in the cartouche above the actor; it appears to be identical to contemporary sushi, although larger than those of today.

The birds in the other cartouche are swallows; they are linked to the name of the restaurant ('En-en tei' means "swallow restaurant")

Note also the intricate pattern in his kimono, produced with shomenzuri; literally, "front-printing", it is a polishing technique. A carved block was placed behind the print and the printed surface rubbed with a hard polisher (often a boar's tusk).

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 - 1858) and Utagawa Kunisada (signing Toyokuni) (1786 - 1865) 1855, 8th month tate-e oban "Ishiyakushi", #45 from the series 'Sōhitsu Gojūsantsugi ('Fifty-three Stations from the Two Brushes', known as the 'Two-Brush Tokaido') For this series, Hiroshige and Kunisada again collaborated, also with Hiroshige producing the landscape backgrounds, and Kunisada the figures. This time the theme was the Tokaido highway, and each print shows a scene from history or myth associated with that particular stage.

This print shows the Kabuki actor Ichikawa Omezo I as the warrior-priest Benkei in the Kabuki play 'Benkei Jōshi'. Benkei is one of the favourite subjects of Japanese myth and legend, a man of great strength and loyalty, the servant and companion of Minamoto no Yoshitsune; they had many adventures together.

'Benkei Jōshi' is the third act of the five-act Kabuki play 'Goshō Zakura Horikawa Youchi' (the only act usually performed now). It was written in 1737 for the bunraku theatre; the Kabuki adaption was first performed in 1755. In this play, Benkei executes his own daughter Shinobu, so that he can substitute her head for that of Kyō no Kimi, the wife of Yoshitsune, whom he has been ordered to execute by Minamoto no Yoritomo because she is the daughter of general of the rival Heiki clan.

Here he wears a good example of the elaborate style of Kabuki makeup associated with aragoto roles, called suji kuma ("border stripes"). Another, kumadori, consists of curved lines or bands painted on a base of white, red, or brown make-up and sweeping outwards from the brow, eyes, and cheeks toward the actor's wig or hair line. Red lines (beniguma) suggest righteousness, strength or passion, and blue lines (aiguma), suggested evil or hatred. There are over 100 combinations of patterns and colors, derived from chikara suji ("sinews of strength") common to painted Buddhist statues.

Ishiyakushi station contains a temple with a large stone statue of the Buddha Yakushi, the supreme deity in Buddhism. The station gets its name from this statue; ishi means "stone". It used to be a stop for travelers bound to the Ise Shrine (the main Shinto temple), before it became a station on the Tokaido.

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