Written by

Andrew Millar


October 1, 2009

I’ve always loved the wood block prints of the Edo period… Ukiyo-e. I first encountered them in art classes in high school. Not that we studied them, we were actually looking at Impressionist Art of the late 19th and early 20th Century. And it seems a lot of the French artists were heavily influenced by Japanese art. In fact I saw an original print of a garden scene that actually turned up in the background of a painting by Van Gogh. To tell you the truth, the irises depicted by Hiroshige in this wood block are almost identical to those Van Gogh would go on to plaint later in his madness. Monet’s garden images showed a very strong appreciation of the art of the Japanese garden. He, in fact modeled his on some he’d seen in early photographs. And Matisse, Gauguin and even Rodan’s interpretation of turn of the century French life reflected an appreciation of the Japanese Ukiyo-e illustrative prints.

What the French were able to do better than the Japanese was draw faces.

To put it bluntly, either the 18th century Japanese woman was long faced, had miniscule features, a fearful underbite that might have made it possible to eat their own noses and eyes that pointed in several directions at once… or the artists of the day were lousy cartographers. Which is probably true because they were cruddy at drawing hands and feet too.

We came to this conclusion in a little peaceful gallery in the backstreets of Harajuku. The exhibition was a collection of Edo art along there theme of the garden and it showed how the rising merchant class now had sufficient money and time to pursue things other than day to day survival. The idea of buying a potted plant in full flower to take home was novel and therefore became the subject of the illustrator’s eye. He just couldn’t draw them very well. Either they were depicted as chronically crossed or one eye seemed to want to see what was going on behind while the other wandered in peripheral directions.

How they could see what they were buying was beyond me.

But don’t get me wrong. Not all Ukiyo-e prints require some ‘education’ to appreciate them. The landscape work of these artists is sublimely beautiful. I particularly love the depiction of snow and snow laden skies… grey and foreboding… with kimono clad figures scurrying home beneath paper umbrellas on geta wooden sandals.

The other subject the Edo artist liked was illustrating Kabuki actors of the day. While they were no better at eyes with these character portraits, the subjects appeared to be so overacting the pose it didn’t seem to matter that there eyes were omnidirectional. In fact most of them were portrayed with the expression of someone who’s genitals were being given a good twist. I have seen very little Kabuki Theatre but what I have seen leads me to believe that overacting is what passes as acting.

And perhaps the tradition of Kabuki drama explains why the performance of just about everyone on TV except newsreaders is so over the top. They all ham it up for the camera. Big. Over produced. Exadurated. Particularly when it comes to tasting food for the audience. We watched a program where 4 people, over endowed with personality, were attempting to eat something at every stop of Tokyo’s Yamanote train line… about 25 stops in all. And everything they ate was depicted as so good, it provoked rapturous cross-eyed genital-tweaking expressions.

Come on guys, it’s not like you don’t eat this food every day of your lives.