Sunday, April 01, 2007
Slice of Japan
Japan never strays far from my consciousness and imagination. I haven't lived there in nearly a decade, but its influence upon the core of my being continues to be profound.
Today, I saw this ukiyo-e, or woodblock print, at a local antique store. It's by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, one of the most famous artists in the genre, and was made in the mid-1840s, about a decade before Japan's feudal era ended and before its modern period began.
It claims to depict a scene from Chapter 34 of the "Genji Monogatari," or "Tale of Genji," written about 1,000 years ago and considered by some to be the world's first novel.
If it's a first-edition print, and I'm pretty sure it is, then I got it for a fair price. If it's a later printing, then a fool and his money have gone their separate ways.
But this print has absolutely nothing to do with the "Tale of Genji."
In the 1840s, a law was passed forbidding the depiction of actors and courtesans in artwork. The authorities thought people's morals were being corrupted.
It seems that to get around this, Kuniyoshi wrote a few token lines about Genji -- these appear as a poem in the large rectangular scroll at the top of the print. But the real subject of this print are two famous Kabuki actors (at left, Ichikawa Danjuro VIII, at right, Onoe Tamizo II) in a scene from the play "Kazari ebi Soga no Kadomatsu," which was first performed in 1842, just a couple of years before this print was made.
The ruse was pretty crafty and, obvious as it was, it worked: The government censor's circular seal of approval appears above Kuniyoshi's red one. But how? Those rectangular, pale yellow cartouches alongside each actor state the names of the characters they played: Soga Juro Sukenari, at left, and Kobayashi Asahina. And any educated Japanese would have known these characters don't appear in "Genji."
It goes to show that it's sometimes better to ask forgiveness than permission.