Generally regarded as being one of the last great masters of ukiyo-e art – “pictures of the floating world” captured in hanging scrolls, woodblock prints and paintings- Tsukioka Yoshitoshi is one of the boldest and most celebrated Japanese artists of the last 200 years. In a tumultuous career in which the artist was well-acquainted with both relative fame as well as crushing obscurity, Yoshitoshi navigated loss, mental illness, and poverty in order to produce works that preserved the rich and vivid tradition of woodblock printing against the encroaching western techniques of ‘modernity’. Prolific, yet met with just as much ambivalence as acclaim, Yoshitoshi’s work has slowly but surely established itself as canonical in the ukiyo-e genre; indeed many modern critics claim that his vision and creativity was instrumental in imparting ukiyo-e with “one last burst of glory”.
Born in 1839 in Edo, Japan and working right up to his death in 1892, just before the break of the new century, Yoshitoshi’s artistic career essentially spanned two eras, running through the late Edo Period and emerging in the tentative first years of ‘Modern’ Japan following the Meji Ishin. Yoshitoshi arguably produced his best work in this liminal space – a space in which his gaze was simultaneously fixed on the vivid traditions of the Japanese past, as well as the emerging cultures and techniques of a new Japan undoubtedly influenced (and as Yoshitoshi thought, perhaps to its detriment) by the ‘West’. Here at THE6BY6, we’ve decided to pick 6 of our favourite Yoshitoshi works, attempting to demonstrate the breadth, beauty and craftsmanship that went into his numerous prints. Take a peek below:
Greedy Lady with the Box of Demons
Series: One Hundred Ghost Stories of China and Japan (1865)
One of Yoshitoshi’s earliest series, One Hundred Ghost Stories of China and Japan was heavily inspired by a long-standing infatuation with ghosts, legends and strange tales that was held by large parts of Japanese society. In one particular ‘game’, family or friends would gather by candelight and exchange chilling stories, extinguishing one candle at a time after concluding their story. Though only 26 of the 100 prints were published, Yoshitoshi revisited and reimagined these stories in a later series, New Forms of 36 Ghosts, which also happened to be one of his last. This particular print depicts a greedy old lady who, upon being given the choice of two boxes to open, picked the bigger box which was full of demons and creatures (as opposed to the smaller box, which was full of gems).
Moon Above the Sea at Daimotsu Bay
Series: One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (1885)
Published towards the end of his career in 1885, and largely regarded to be one of his greatest achievements, One Hundred Aspects of The Moon draws on both Chinese and Japanese history, literature and mythology. Though certain prints engage in a dialogue of sorts, each and every one is linked by the looming presence of the moon. In this particular woodblock print, the warrior-priest Musashibo Benkei, servant to Minamoto no Yoshitsune, is caught in a violent storm at Daimotsu Bay. Hearing the voices of Taira warriors calling for revenge in the wake of Yoshitsune’s decisive victory over the clan in 1185, Benkei confronts the storm reciting spells and prayers in order to pacify their spirits and calm the waves.
Naosuke Gombei ripping off a face
Series: 28 Famous Murders with Verse (1866-1867)
Roughly two decades before the renowned 36 Ghosts and 100 Aspects, 28 Famous Murders with Verse was the first Yoshitoshi series to truly capture the public imagination. Arguably his most violent, yet vivid series of woodblock prints, the brutal and bloody content of 28 Murders reflected, in many ways, the tension, upheaval and conflict that ensued as Japan’s traditional feudal system started to break down, its isolationist policy was ended, fighting broke out and doors were opened to western trade and influence. Many of the scenes in this series, which was a joint venture between Yoshitoshi and Yoshiiku, were inspired by historical events and well-known Kabuki and Noh plays. This particularly visceral print depicts Naosuke Gombei ripping off the face of his victim. Gnarly.
A Drunkard vomiting at Naito Shinjuku.
Series: Humorous Pictures of Famous Places in Modern Tokyo (1881)
Originally issued as paired chuban prints, the Humorous Pictures of Famous Places in Modern Tokyo, though still rife with ghosts, folk references and mythical creatures, demonstrated the Yoshitoshi’s keen interest in the scenes of life that played out in 19th century Tokyo. Prostitutes, rickshaw drivers, Geisha’s and drunkards populate Yoshitoshi’s caricatured Tokyo, where surreal, absurd and often humorous scenes unfold across the cityscape – in brothels and temples, at fish markets and lumber yards, and on the bustling city streets. We’re particular fans of this print, A Drunkard vomiting at Naito Shinjuku, for its whimsical sense of debauchery which definitely borders on the comedic.
The Woman Tomoe (Tomoe Onna)
Series: Mirror of Beauties Past and Present (1875-1876)
A series produced roughly in the middle of Yoshitoshi’s career, Mirror of Beauties Past and Present was published as the artist emerged from one of the most difficult periods of his life. Off of the back of successful works like 28 Murders… Yoshitoshi was held in relatively high esteem and was certainly respected as an artist. Soon however, as the commissions dried up and the public developed a distaste for the violence that had recently characterised his work, Yoshitoshi fell out of favour. After suffering a supposed mental breakdown and languishing in near poverty – indeed it was suggested that his mistress sold herself to a brothel to support him – Yoshitoshi slowly began to secure more work. Mirror of Beauties Past and Present was a series that heralded a slight resurgence in a period where he rechristened himself ‘Taiso’ roughly translating to ‘Great Resurrection’. This particular print depicts Tomoe Gozen, a late twelfth-century female samurai warrior, revered for her strength and bravery as much as her beauty.
The Lonely House on Adachi Moor (1885)
Published in what might be considered the Twilight of his tumultuous career, The Lonely House on Adachi Moor is a Yoshitoshi work that is as notorious as it is iconic. It depicts the cannibalistic ‘old hag’ from the folktale The hag of Adachigahara, who preys upon travellers and drinks the blood of unborn children. Though both the folktale and this print are certainly macabre, Yoshitoshi refrains from showing the actual moment of violence, even though earlier works such as 28 Murders demonstrated his capacity to vividly capture the bloodly and the brutal.