Dear blog readers!
Summer is here, and in D.C. that means two things: It’s time to stay indoors and drink lots of iced tea. To celebrate the arrival of summer, I’ve decided to post on my blog about the sometimes enchanting, sometimes transporting, and sometimes just plain weird cultural attractions I come across and parties I attend. These posts will, I hope, counterbalance the short stories I’m writing, which may not ever be read by anyone, except the friends I sometimes share them with. Think of these as a “Letter from Washington” or “My Life on the D List,” penned by a Washington lawyer averse to television and blessed with a little spare time.
Today’s entry is about an exhibit of 18th and 19th Century Manga cartoons on display at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery until August 11, and it is called …
The Williamsburg of Old Japan
In 1600, the Japanese military leader Tokugawa Ieyasu crowned a lifetime of battlefield victories and diplomatic triumphs by winning the battle of Sekigahara, at that time the biggest and most important military victory in Japanese history. (Wikipedia has a nice summary of Ieyasu’s life and rise to power.) Three years later, after consolidating his power across Japan, Ieyasu established the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal system of government that ruled Japan for the next 250 years, known as the Edo Period for the name of its ruling city, better (and later) known as Tokyo.
The cultural and artistic flowering of the Edo Period bears a resemblance to our own electronic age. The feudal system established by Ieyasu in 1603, and carried on by his successors until 1868, concentrated wealth and power among a ruling elite, and brought artists, craftsmen, and merchants to the cities. The shift from brush painting to block printing, along with other technological advances, enabled the mass production of images. As the introductory text to the Sackler Gallery’s exhibit Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer’s Japanese Illustrated Books explains, these forces “transformed Japan in the seventeenth century much as electronic media has altered communication around the world.”
A happy coincidence of forces, in other words, introduced mass, and mass-producable, popular culture to Japan. People traveled to yukaku, or pleasure districts, to enjoy an urban lifestyle known as ukiyo, poetically translatable as “the floating world.” The most prominent of these latter-day bohemian enclaves was Yoshiwara, what we might think of as, and in its day probably was, the Williamsburg of the Edo Age.
Among the cultural and hedonistic pleasures on offer in the yukaku (music, storytelling, kabuki theater, geisha girls, puppetry, poetry, literature, and art) were shops selling small cartoon books printed from finely styled woodcuts. The books, which were only slightly larger than an iPhone, and just as handy, were produced in vibrant colors, on paper so delicate as to be transparent. A beautiful collection of these Edo era, early Manga cartoon books, collected by Gerhard and Rosemarie Perverer, are on display at the Sackler Gallery until August 11, and they are worth checking out.
What you will notice, in addition to the graceful and accessible style of the cartoons, is their surprisingly contemporary feel. Times and technology may change, but great art looks familiar to the inhabitants of any age. The drawings are enchanting. I visited the exhibit twice, and both times I got lost in the magical images from another world and time.
There are elaborate battle scenes, warriors slaying monsters, beautiful women receiving visitors, old men contemplating serene landscapes, courtesans relaxing between appointments, and portraits of kabuki actors, all drawn in light strokes and brought to life with a touch of charm. There is a tall oak in a print by Mizushima Nihofu that looks like it belongs in a painting by Van Gogh. In the oversized, partly self-referential, hanging scroll entitled Women Airing Books and Clothes, by Katsukawa Shunsho, two women dry freshly-printed pages on a line as a third binds the pages and a fourth, who has become distracted, reads the finished product. The print Tenzopan shokei ichiran, by Yashima Gakutei, presents a breathtaking color scene of a galleon, under full sail and a yellow moon, slipping through a trough between two towering, breaking waves.
The exhibit illustrates other unlikely parallels between the Edo era and our own, including the fact that the publishing world favored vertical integration, with distribution, sales, and marketing handled by a single business, as if Amazon’s anti-competitive business model had been imported into shogunal Japan. The pornographic books, which are presented in a recessed alcove, are as lascivious and grotesque as anything available on the internet. There is even one print, of a canal in Yokohama spanned by an iron bridge, in which, among the strolling residents and rickshaw drivers, there is a character who seems to be taking notes on a pad he holds before him, perhaps for his own small article he will later print and pass around.
Some things never change.