October 09, 2020 5 min read

Ukiyo-e prints emerged from the cultural tastes of the rapidly growing Edo and its merchant class, which was exploding in number and wealth. Being of a lower social class in Japan meant that townspeople were denied access to the more refined entertainments of the aristocracy and samurai classes. As such, they created their own entertainment, in the cities' pleasure quarters, filled with tea-houses, theatres, restaurants and brothels.

In Edo (now Tokyo) that was Yoshiwara, and in Kyoto it was Gion. Within these districts, the strict boundaries of social classes were ignored and people came to enjoy the food, entertainment and passions. 

The subject matters portrayed in ukiyo-e varied widely across a multitude of pleasures and leisures. But aside from being bought for entertainment, woodblock printing was also used in creating informative imagery such as advertisements, propaganda and education. 

‘Ukiyo-e’ translates to “pictures of the floating world” and refers to the transient, hedonistic world of the pleasure districts. 

We've split our ukiyo-e collections into 7 different genres - major areas explored by nearly all ukiyo-e artists within their lifetimes. However the most commonly depicted and commercially popular genres were landscapes, beauties, actors and erotica. 

The Genres

Landscapes were a beloved genre of woodblock prints. When ukiyo-e began, it was used for creating portraits and depicting traditional scenes of the merchant classes. It wasn’t until the two great ukiyo-e masters, Hokusai and Hiroshige, came on the scene that an independent genre for landscapes was developed. 

The merchant classes wanted to view images of travel because they were unable to do so in such a harsh political landscape. Artists would travel across the cities, prefectures and islands of Japan, bringing home views of their beloved country to the people.

Japanese people had a deep spiritual love and respect for nature, relishing in its beauty. Waterfalls, for instance, were believed to be sacred within the animistic values of the Shinto religion, and were a frequent pilgrimage and subject matter in ukiyo-e. Mount Fuji was another popular character for ukiyo-e, due to its cultural and religious significance, as it was believed to be the source for immortality. 

"Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province" - Hiroshige, 1853

"Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province" - Hiroshige, 1853

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Beauty Prints (Bijin-ga)was a genre that portrayed the beauties of the day: courtesans and geisha of the pleasure districts. ‘Bijin-ga’ translates literally to “beautiful person pictures”, and although the name doesn’t specify a gender, it was solely portraits of women. The artworks celebrated both idealised and realistic interpretations of female beauty. 

Artists depicted beauties in fantasized scenes; entertaining, hiding behind fans, brushing their hair, all the while swathed in ornately patterned kimono without a hair out of place. 

These works were also the main instigator of fashion and styles within hair, make-up and clothes. The demand for ukiyo-e was high, so artists had to work quickly in delivering new designs and meet the changing fashions of the pleasure districts.

"Woman With Comb" - Utamaro, 1795-1796

"Woman With Comb" - Utamaro, 1795-1796

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Kabuki Actor Prints (Yakusha-e)were the most commercially successful form of ukiyo-e. Yakusha-e literally means “actor prints” and were usually bright, detailed and ornate. As the theatre art of kabuki was so actor-centred, the heroes and villains of the plays became celebrities. Much like how we display movie stars posters today, the Japanese public wanted images of their favour actors on their walls.

With complex plots, stylized acting and spectacular production design, kabuki was an expressive form of storytelling. When ukiyo-e images began to be produced, kabuki was a male-only theatre arts, so female characters were played by men, called ‘onnagata’. Artists would flatter the actors by feminising their features in portraits.

Actors wore elaborate costumes and lots of make-up. At the climax of a kabuki scene, the leading actors would strike a ‘mie’ pose, which involved dramatic movements and crossed eyes in order to emanate the intense emotion. This was usually the preferred pose for artists to portray the actors in.

"Nakamura Tamasuke I as Moriguchi Kuro" - Kunisada, 1852

"Nakamura Tamasuke I as Moriguchi Kuro" - Kunisada, 1852

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Erotic Prints (‘Shunga’)were artworks that portrayed sexually exciting scenes. Unlike many Western cultures, sensual pleasures were considered to be a sacred part of Japanese culture and involved in their religions. Types of shunga scenes can range from the flirtatious showing of a woman’s neck (the nape was considered to be a primary erotic area), to images of multiple couples engaging in exposed coitus, usually with enlarge genitalia. 

The two genres of erotica are ‘abuna-e’ and shunga. While abuna-e translates to mean “erotic pictures”, usually these were subtle and playful - less overtly sexual. Shunga, however, translates to mean “spring pictures”, and portrayed passionate frenzies of pleasure, between couples from all walks of life.

Many themes within shunga contained metaphors, such as replacing humans with animals. This was used to represent the actions of the sexual act, but also as a parody that twists traditional legendary stories, such as the octopi in “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”. 

"The Season of Chrysanthemums" - Hokusai, 1820

"The Season of Chrysanthemums" - Hokusai, 1820

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Warriors, Myths and Legends were another much-loved element of Japanese culture. They were usually tales of the adventures of: ‘samurai’ (military noblemen), ‘ronin’ (samurai without masters) and ‘otokodate’ (commonly known as ‘street knights’). Occasionally these prints would feature the un-appeased spirits of warriors and supernatural - known as Yōkai.

The first warrior prints, known as ‘musha-e’, were illustrations that accompanied classical war literature of Japan and China, known as ‘monogatari’. One of the most important designers of musha-e was Kuniyoshi, as were his pupils that learnt his trade, such as Yoshitoshi.

At the end of the Edo period there was a resurgence of warrior prints, after a wave of Japanese nationalism and a nostalgic yearning for the glorious Japan of the past.

"Kido Maru Learning From the Tengu" - Hokusai, 1840

"Kido Maru Learning From the Tengu" - Hokusai, 1840

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Birds and Flowers (Kacho-e)were exquisite displays of the natural world - of which the Japanese had the utmost respect for. Many images are embedded with metaphorical and poetic meanings, such as cherry blossoms: which can represent a precious but transient life. ‘Kacho-e’ translates as “birds and flowers”, but according to the Chinese tradition, kacho-e actually refers also to fish and insects, amongst other natural beings.

These images were mostly popular in the latter years of ukiyo-e designing, known as ‘shin-hanga’, or “new prints”. Flora and fauna were depicted in a sympathetic way, taking them from decorative to poetic.

"Cranes on a Snow-Covered Pine Tree" - Hokusai, 1834

"Cranes on a Snow-Covered Pine Tree" - Hokusai, 1834

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Supernatural Prints (Yōkai)covered everything from ghost, to demon to strange apparition. Japan’s history is rich with folklore; the exciting and scary stories of spirits and creatures that brought good and bad fortunes. 

These beings originated out of fear, but after being so heavily illustrated in ukiyo-e, much of the belief in yōkai disappeared. Yōkai could come in many recognisable forms such as ghosts, shape-shifters and witches. But they could also be river monsters, house-hold objects and floating heads.

Due to the animistic nature of the shinto religion, the cultural belief was that all things are sentient. Therefore spirits existed in many forms, often sharing traits with the shinto gods, known as ‘kami’.

"Kuwana: the Story of Sailor Tokuzō" - Kuniyoshi, 1845

"Kuwana: the Story of Sailor Tokuzō" - Kuniyoshi, 1845

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To read more in-depth explanations of genres and artist histories, click here to view our blog, and dive deeper into the world of ukiyo-e.


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