A Guide to Subjects, Themes & Motifs

Gina Collia-Suzuki

A Guide to Subjects, Themes & Motifs
Gina Collia-Suzuki

Nezu Press

Published by Nezu Press utamaro@nezupress.com First published 2008 © Gina Collia-Suzuki 2008 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers. ISBN-13: 978-0-9559796-0-6

This book is dedicated to the memory of Jack and Mary Hillier


Introduction I. II. III. IV. V. VI. Artist Without a Biography Denizens of the Pleasure Quarter The Beauty of Innocence: A Selection of Serving Girls Popular Entertainment: From Theatrical Dances to Festive Frolics Tales of Star-Crossed Lovers Laughing Gods and Legendary Heroes

9 10 32 50 59 67 88 127 141 152 159 175 176 178 180 182 183 187 189 193

VII. Leisurely Pursuits VIII. The Occupations and Handiwork of Women IX. X. Intimate Scenes of Everyday Life Studies in Female Characteristics Appendix I: Map of Edo Appendix II: Signatures and Seals Appendix III: Publishers’ Marks Appendix IV: Names of Lovers Appendix V: Names of Famous Beauties Appendix VI: Names of Yoshiwara Houses and Courtesans Appendix VII: Riddle-Pictures Bibliography Index

Beauty holding a hair comb, one of a pair of bust portraits set against a decorative background, published by Ômiya Gonkurô, c. 1795-6.


One need not know anything of Utamaro’s background or of the subjects he depicted to immediately appreciate the mastery of his designs or the brilliance of his draughtsmanship, but to fully appreciate his works a certain level of knowledge is required to understand the meaning he intended to convey by their production. A slight hand gesture, the tilt of a young woman’s head, the way a garment is worn, the presence of some item which would have been instantly recognisable to the people of the day, all help us to identify the subject and aid our interpretation of the image being presented, and in so doing they bring us closer to an understanding of the creator of such wondrous designs. Without such knowledge Utamaro’s prints are still obviously technically brilliant and visually stunning, but with it they offer an insight into the world in which the artist lived, the customs and manners of the time, and a glimpse of the characters he associated with, along with the places he frequented, and even of the artist’s opinion of his own work and worth. It is not my intention in this book to present a chronological chapter by chapter account of the artist and his oeuvre, as the reader has already been provided with such a work in the form of Jack Hillier’s excellent Utamaro: Colour Prints and Paintings. Rather, my purpose is to present a reference guide which can be read cover to cover or dipped into when the need arises to aid in the identification of subjects in the artist’s work. It is my hope that the information provided in the following chapters, along with that contained within the appendices, will enable the reader, even if he has no knowledge of Japanese history or the language, to locate and decipher the subject of the Utamaro design he has before him. So, while the opening chapter is concerned solely with providing a brief chronological overview of the biographical information which can be gleaned from Utamaro’s works, in order to give us a more vivid picture of the artist, the remaining chapters are organised into groupings by subject and are not presented according to date. As it is most often the case that an artist invests much of his personality and character into his work, a better understanding of the subjects and themes presented in the artist’s work, and the methods used to present them, undoubtedly leads to a better understanding of the artist. That is the purpose of this book, to present information which leads to a better grasp of the subjects portrayed, and therefore a greater familiarity with Utamaro himself.


Chapter One

Artist Without a Biography
To gain an understanding of the artist and his environment, the analytical study of his works is not just the most insightful method for the procurement of information, it is by and large the only way in Utamaro’s case. Ordinarily, to construct a true image of the artist and trace his development, we would marry the information gleaned from his works to the biographical data at our disposal, but in Utamaro’s case, as the latter is so scant and invariably contradictory, the former becomes our sole source from which to accomplish the task. Despite being a renowned artist within his own lifetime, the lowly status of an Ukiyo-e print designer in 18th century Edo meant that little attempt was made to record elements of Utamaro’s life, and aside from an entry in the death register at Senkô-ji Temple, where the artist’s remains were interred, there is no biographical data on official record. Based on the record at Senkô-ji Temple, which states that at the time of his death, on the twentieth day of the ninth month of Bunka 3, which corresponds to 1806, he was fifty-four years old by the Japanese count, which takes into account the old tradition of considering an infant to be one year old at birth, making him in actual fact fifty-three years old by today’s reckoning, it is generally accepted that Utamaro was born in 1753. We also know from the death register that his family name was Kitagawa and that he was buried with the posthumous Buddhist name of Shûen Ryôkô Shinshi. His birthplace is unknown. There have been various locations put forward for consideration, based on old accounts written during the artist’s lifetime and in the few decades which followed his death, including Kawagoe in the province of Musashi, Ôsaka, Kyôto, and the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter of Edo, but as there is no conclusive evidence to support any one of them it may be wise to assume that, failing the introduction of freshly uncovered and factually verifiable information, the matter may never be resolved one way or another. Concerning Utamaro’s parentage there is no more certainty than there is regarding his place of birth, unless we accept the theory that he was the son of a tea-house owner in the Yoshiwara district, for which there is no conclusive proof, or that his teacher, Toriyama Sekien, was in fact his father as has been suggested from time to time. Certainly, based on his postscript to Utamaro’s illustrated book Ehon mushi erabi (A Picture Book of Selected Insects) of 1788, which refers to Utamaro playing in Sekien’s garden as a child, Sekien seems to have been the artist’s guardian since childhood, but neither claimed any blood relationship and there seems no reason to assume there was one. Accounts of Utamaro’s life written by his contemporaries shed little light on his background. From one source we learn that his name as a child was Ichitarô. Another

Utamaro Revealed

3. Street scene depicting a sushi shop at Tôri-chô, from Ehon Edo suzume (Picture Book: The Sparrows of Edo), published by Tsutaya Jûzaburô, 1786.

renowned poet of the time, are still rather Kiyonaga-esque in style, but we begin to see the promise of things to come. Between the years 1786 and 1790, Utamaro invested much of his time and effort into the production of illustrations for kyôka picture books, with all but one being published by Tsutaya Jûzaburô, so it appears that, having secured a most promising young talent, Tsutaya was keen to put him to work. We know little of Utamaro’s life during this period, aside from what can be gleaned from the kyôka anthologies the artist produced. We gather from the signature contained in the postscript to Bakuseishi, a privately commissioned work published in the ninth month of 1787, that Utamaro was lodging with the publisher Tsutaya Jûzaburô at the time of its publication. His signature, Tsuta no moto no Utamaro, which translates as ‘Utamaro at the foot of the ivy’, playfully alludes to the recognisable ivy leaf publishing mark used by Tsutaya, and it seems likely that his move to the publisher’s premises took place some time during or just after 1783, when the working relationship was first launched. There appeared, in the New Year of 1788, a most glorious testament to Utamaro’s powers of observation and composition, and to the wood cutter’s abilities with regards to carving the block; a work which owed little to any other masters of the time and established the artist’s career, the illustrated colour album Ehon mushi erabi (A Picture Book of Selected Insects). As mentioned previously, Toriyama Sekien provided the postscript for


Utamaro Revealed

intended to be a true to life representation of Utamaro’s actual appearance. Personal vanity, or perhaps the simple following of his own pattern of idealising the human form, does appear to have led him to depict a man who looks to be much his junior, but the main focus in drawing this design was more likely to have been the occupation of the man depicted rather than his physical attributes. Although the artist’s designs arrived with his public in the form of woodblock prints, Utamaro appears to have always considered himself to be a painter, rather than a designer, so it is fitting that he should be immortalised in this fashion, captured in the moment as he prepares to add the finishing touches to another of his sumptuous creations, this time on a particularly grand and impressive scale, in one of the pleasure houses that must surely have been home to a number of the courtesans who had been the subject of so many of his broadsheets. During the summer of 1804, only a short while after the publication of the Annals of the Green Houses, Utamaro was apparently censured for producing broadsheets depicting famous warriors and for naming them on the prints, albeit in a slightly disguised manner; the naming of historical figures and the inclusion of crests or seals being strictly prohibited at the time. Unfortunately, no court documents concerning the trial or subsequent punishment have survived, so there is no official record of the specific prints responsible for Utamaro’s censure, or the punishment handed down by the court. In the fourth month of 1804 there did appear, however, an official report

14. Utamaro putting the finishing touches to a painting of a Hô-ô bird in one of the Green Houses, from the illustrated book Seirô ehon nenjû gyôji (Annals of the Green Houses), published by Kazusaya Chûsuke, 1804.


Chapter Two

Denizens of the Pleasure Quarter
Until the formation of the licensed quarter of the Yoshiwara, the brothels of Edo were scattered, in groups of two or three, about the city. In the 17th year of the Keichô era (1612), however, a rather prosperous brothel owner by the name of Shôji Jin’emon petitioned the government for the allocation of land to set up a licensed brothel district, and in 1617 his petition was granted with land being allocated in Fukiya-machi, which was at the time little more than a swamp. Owing to the location and condition of the site, the new area was named Yoshiwara, or ‘Rush Moor’. Work to fill in the marshes and prepare the area for building began in earnest in 1617, and by the latter part of the following year the new brothel district was open for trade, although the quarter was not entirely finished until the end of 1626. During the latter part of 1656, however, the Yoshiwara’s inhabitants were informed that the quarter would have to be relocated, as the expansion of the city left the local authorities in need of the site, and two possible alternatives were put forward; a site in the vicinity of Nihon-zutsumi (‘The Dyke of Japan’), near Asakusa Temple, and one in the Honjô area. After petitioning the government to reconsider, and having that petition summarily rejected, the brothel keepers of the district chose the former of the two locations and agreed that the relocation of the quarter would begin during the April of 1657. It was on the 2nd of March of that year, however, that the great fire swept through the city, burning for three days and nights and destroying everything in its path, including the entire brothel quarter, so the relocation of the quarter to the new site was moved forward and began immediately. The building of the new brothel district, appropriately named the Shin-Yoshiwara, or ‘New Yoshiwara’, which turned out to be considerably larger than the old quarter and occupied almost eighteen acres of land, was completed in the September of 1657 and was immediately opened for business. The entire quarter was constructed to be contained within an enclosed area, surrounded by a moat, with only one point of access, the Ômon, or ‘Great Gate’. A government notice was posted at the entrance to the district, forbidding those who entered from riding in palanquins, unless they were doctors, or from carrying in weapons of any kind, and admittance to, and exit from, the area was strictly monitored at the gate. Women from outside the brothel quarter were only allowed to enter if they had an official letter, and the prostitutes who lived and worked inside the quarter were not permitted to leave without prior permission, and not for any reason at all after six o’clock in the day. The Yoshiwara district was a world within a world, in one respect an intrinsic part of the city and of the lives of many of its

Chapter Three

The Beauty of Innocence: A Selection of Serving Girls
It cannot be denied that Utamaro invested a great deal of his time and energy into the depiction of Yoshiwara courtesans and their entourages, and the portrayal of their everyday lives. However, there were other female subjects who appeared frequently in his prints, girls of the townsman class, drawn not from the pleasure quarter but from the many teahouses, rice-cake shops and restaurants around the city. These ordinary young women, who served a s wa i t r e s s e s i n t h e va r i o u s establishments offering refreshments situated throughout Edo, inspired some of his most well-known prints; the waitresses Okita and Ohisa, for example, who were both depicted on a number of occasions with great success. As opposed to the grand designs of Yoshiwara women, with their layers of beautifully embroidered dresses and elaborate hairstyles, and their costumed attendants and lavish apartments, the portraits of the young women outside the pleasure quarter possess a more simple and delicate beauty. The youthful girls depicted in these prints have an air of innocence befitting ones so young which sets them apart from the women of the Yoshiwara who, despite being only a little older than these girls in many cases, had been forced to age well 26. Naniwaya Okita at her teashop, published by Maruya beyond their years in order to cope Bun’emon, c. 1793 with the lifestyle imposed upon them

Utamaro Revealed

30. Tôji san bijin (Three Beauties of the Present Day), showing Tomimoto Toyohina and the teahouse waitresses Naniwaya Okita and Takashima Ohisa, published by Tsutaya Jûzaburô, c. 1793.


Chapter Five

Tales of Star-Crossed Lovers
At a time when marriage was entered into primarily for convenience, out of loyalty to one’s family, and often solely for the purpose of ensuring the continuation of the family line, and when taking a wife was more akin to engaging a housekeeper and nursemaid than choosing a lover and lifetime companion, tales of passionate romantic love which endured against all odds, which offered a glimpse at the type of intense and intimate relationship many ordinary Japanese men and women could not hope to experience, were incredibly popular amongst the Edo townspeople. Scandalously illicit affairs, double suicides, and passionate encounters between lovers who risked all to be together, captured the imagination of Edo’s inhabitants, and dramatic tales of ill-fated lovers, which invariably ended badly, were popular in literature, in prints, in songs and on the stage. By modern standards they may not, in many cases, be seen as even remotely romantic, and the protagonists may not earn our respect or admiration for their actions, but amongst the inhabitants of Edo the men and women who were portrayed in these tales represented the ideal of romantic love and unwavering devotion.

Koharu and Jihei
Utamaro produced a number of sets of prints depicting such famous lovers, shown in both half-length and full-length, and in different formats, but none surpass the monumental series which appeared around 1798-9, published by Nishimuraya, bearing the title Jitsu kurabe iro no minakami (An Array of Passionate Lovers), for which twenty-one designs are currently known. The most well-known design within this set is that portraying Kamiya Jihei and Kinokuniya Koharu, which is often referred to as La Sortie. The scene depicted in Utamaro’s design is the michiyuki, or ‘final journey’, and illustrates the moment when the two lovers are preparing to leave and make their way to Daichô-ji Temple, the place where they will end their lives together. Jihei is shown raising the walls of the collapsed paper lantern he is holding, to protect the candle flame which is exposed to the wind, and is wearing a white head covering to disguise his appearance, whilst his lover Koharu, whose hair is shrouded in a black veil, stands by his side. The dramatisations of the story of Koharu and her lover Jihei were based on real-life events which took place in 1720, when Kamiya Jihei, a twenty-eight year old married paper merchant with two children, from the Temman district of Osaka, and Koharu, a nineteen year old prostitute belonging to the Kinokuniya brothel, committed suicide

Chapter Six

Laughing Gods and Legendary Heroes
In addition to numerous images of courtesans, famous waitresses, entertainers and illfated lovers, and scenes of everyday life involving the ordinary townsfolk of Edo, Utamaro produced a multitude of designs which took for their subjects the characters from popular Japanese legend and mythology. In many cases the legendary or mythological subject is only secondary to the main theme of the design, which is often the portrayal of a beautiful woman, or the subject has been altered somewhat to enable the artist to include a famous beauty of the day. Whilst the characters being represented must have been readily recognisable to Utamaro’s audience at the time, to the modern viewer the link between the intended subject and the one presented can at times seem so tenuous that it evades detection almost entirely and only the title on the design, or the inclusion of an inset picture, aids in the identification of the myth or legend being depicted.

Yamauba and Kintarô
Yamauba, with her wildly unkempt locks, strands of which frame her face and tumble freely about her shoulders, and Kintarô the golden boy, with his brick-red skin and chubby form, are one couple who rarely need an introduction, as their appearance makes them instantly recognisable. Utamaro produced more than fifty prints which include Kintarô and Yamauba, more than any other individual Ukiyo-e artist, so it must be assumed that Yamauba and

47. Yamauba and Kintarô , published by Tsutaya Jûzaburô, c. 1801-3.


Utamaro Revealed

58. Ichi danme (Act One), from the series Chûshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers), published by Nishimuraya Yohachi, c. 1801-2.


Chapter Ten

Studies in Female Characteristics
The most well-known, best loved, and artistically outstanding of all the designs produced by Utamaro undoubtedly belong to the sets of bust portraits devoted to the depiction of female moods and characteristics. The series which stands out as the finest, and is without a doubt the best known, is that entitled Fujin sôgaku juttai (Ten Physiognomic Studies of Women), of 1792-3, the title of which was changed to Fujo ninsô juppon (Ten Physiognomic Classes of Women) following the issue of the first five designs. The ambitious aim of the series, according to the title, is the physiognomic study of different ‘types’ of women; that is, the divination of the character or destiny of the subject portrayed by the close study of her facial features. A total of eight designs are known,48 with one of the prints, that of the woman blowing a poppin, having been issued twice, with the earlier title and then again with the later one. The reason for the title change is uncertain. It has been suggested that there was some adverse reaction to the use of the word sôgaku (physiognomic study) from professional physiognomists, who may have objected to Utamaro representing himself as a qualified member of their profession,49 but it seems unlikely that such complaints would have held much sway with the authorities at the time. The more likely cause, considering the climate with regards to the censorship of all printed works, may well have been a desire to refrain from contravening some restriction put in place by the authorities, which might also account for why the final design to have been published, that of a young woman holding a parasol, was issued without the customary kiwame seal, implying that the changes made to that point still hadn’t satisfied the censors. Along with the change in title, the signature used on the designs was altered and the term sômi, which was reserved for use by professional physiognomists, was changed to sôkan. With the title and signature changes, the suggestion that these designs were the product of a serious physiognomic study of female characteristics by one qualified for the task was removed, and replaced by the more light-hearted assertion that the subjects portrayed were the result of an attempt to depict female ‘types’ according to models already outlined by professional physiognomists. At the time of this set’s publication, the bust portrait was almost entirely unknown, and the use of mica, which provides the background to each of the designs, was reserved, for the most part, for the embellishment of small areas of illustrations
48 49

There is written mention of a ninth design. See Yoshida Teruji, Ukiyo-e jiten, vol. 3. Asano, Shûgo, The Passionate Art of Utamaro, London 1995, p.100. 159

Appendix III

Publishers’ Marks
(which appear on Utamaro’s prints)





































Utamaro Revealed

88. Naniwaya Okita, from the series Kômei bijin rokkasen (Famous Beauties Compared to the Six Immortal Poets), published by Ômiya Gonkurô, c. 1795-6.



Above and Below Ryôgoku Bridge (six-sheet print)128-129 A Brief History of the Exploits of a Great Dandy, see Minari daitsûjin ryakuengi A Collection of Elegant Little Treasures, see Fûryû kodakara awase A Collection of Japanese Poems from Ancient and Modern Times, see Kokin wakashû A Comparison of Seven Lucky Beauties, see Shichi fuku-bijin kiryô kurabe Agemaki (the courtesan), see Agemaki and Sukeroku Agemaki and Sukeroku 79-80, 180 A Hundred Birds Compared in Humorous Poems, see Momo chidori kyôka awase Akane no iroage (play) 72 Akashi (Tamaya) 186 Akera Kankô 14 Amanoya Rihei (Gihei in the play Kanadehon Chûshingura) 125, 126 Amazing Travels of a Playboy in the Land of Giants, see Migi no tôri tashika ni uso shikkari gantori-chô A Mirror of Flirting Lovers: Cloud Clusters across the Moon, see Chiwa kagami tsuki no murakumo A Mirror of Matching Beauties of the Yoshiwara, see Seirô bijin awase sugata kagami An Array of Passionate Lovers, see Jitsu kurabe iro no minakami Anchin (theatrical character), see Dôjô-ji Annals of the Green Houses, see Seirô ehon nenjû gyôji Annals of the Regent Hideyoshi, see Ehon Taikô-ki

A Parent’s Moralising Spectacles, see Kyôkun oya no megane Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) 62, 103, 104, 111-112 Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893) 62, 181 Array of Passionate Lovers, see Jitsu kurabe iro no minakami Asajiu (Daimonjiya) 186 Asakusa Kannon Temple 32, 52, 55, 135-136, 175 Toshi-no-ichi (Year-end Fair) 49, 53, 135-136 Asano Takumi no Kami (one of the Chûshingura) 118, 119 A Selection of Six Poets from the Green Houses, see Seirô rokkasen A View of the Seven League Beach at Kamakura, see Sôshû Kamakura Shichiri-ga-hama fûkei Azamino (the courtesan), see Azamino and Gontarô Azamino and Gontarô 84, 181 Azuma Tôzô II (1730-1776) 61 Bakuseishi 16 banquet to announce new working name 14 Baxian 99, 100, 101 Beauty holding a hair comb 8 Beauty smoking (from the series Fujo ninsô juppon) 21, 161-162, 164 Benten, see Benzaiten Benzaiten 112, 113-114, 117, 133, 139 birth of Utamaro 10 Bishamon 112, 113, 117 Brief History of the Exploits of a Great Dandy, see Minari daitsûjin ryakuengi Budaishi, see Hotei 193

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