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Edo’s Floating World and the Beautiful Everyday

Can advertising be art? We might as well ask “Can life be beautiful?” It depends on how you see the world. Look the right way, and the distinctions collapse, we see beauty in the chaos of the city, and the ephemera of change reveals permanence.

We see this vision in ukiyo-e, the pictures of the floating world of nineteenth-century Edo, modern Tokyo. Here art embraces life and advertising while advertising shows the beautiful everyday.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). “Suruga-cho, No. 8” in One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 9th month of 1856. Woodblock print. Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain via Wikipedia
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). Edo Scenic Beauty: Yoshiwara. Late Edo period (1804-1830). Woodblock print. Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain via Wikipedia

You might recognize the logo of the Mitsui Group in the first picture. The Echigoya silk and kimono store, on the left of the street, is today’s Mitsukoshi department store. On the right is the related Mitsui Bank. Together, they are the roots of the modern conglomerate.

One of these pictures, both by Hiroshige Utagawa, is from a book of prints, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, the other is a colour poster, or nishik-e, promoting a cherry blossom festival, itself a promotional event, on the main street of Yoshiwara, Edo’s pleasure district. Both show the hustle and bustle of city life with the logos of retailers and institutions (shops, banks, brothels). Alongside this profusion of everyday life is the permanence of nature, Mt Fuji in one and the passing of seasons in the other. The quantity of text on the second suggests it may be an advertisement, but why not a poem or aphorism?

Active from 1812 to 1858, Hiroshige is considered the last great master of ukiyo-e. Like today’s commercial artists, illustrators, and designers, he and artists like him worked collaboratively with woodcarvers, copywriters, clients, and publishers. Together they produced a dizzying array of books and prints, including precursors of today’s manga and anime, manuals for students and designers as well as flyers, catalogues, and promotional materials. Like ours, theirs was a world where attention was in short supply and novelty was its hook. Celebrity endorsements urged consumers to spread the word or “like” the product.

Toyohara Kunichika. “The Daishichi Restaurant in Imado,” from Thirty-Six Restaurants of Tokyo. 1870. Woodblock print. Public domain via Wikipedia.
Sazanami Iwaya and Keishū Takeuchi, Sugoroku, a board game similar to Snakes and Ladders. Woodblock print. Late 19th Century. Waseda University Library. Public domain via Wikipedia.

Both of these formats, the colour print series and the pull-out children’s game, were used to promote businesses in Edo.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900). Onoe Kikugorō V as Akashi no Naruzō in the play Shima Chidori Tsuki no Shiranami (1890).
Woodblock print. British Library. Public domain via Wikipedia.

An early example of the image of a celebrity performer promoting a theatre production. Both plays and posters could be used for cross-promotion of consumer goods and brands such toothpaste and face-powder brands.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre. Woodblock print. c. 1844. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Public domain via Wikipedia.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). A page from the Manga, showing people with their faces hidden. (1808). Woodblock print. From James A. Michener, (1958) Hokusai Sketchbooks: Selections from the Manga. Public domain via Wikipedia.

Hokusai produced these “manga” to help his students and amateurs alike. They also provided much of his income.

The New Views and The New Blues

Despite appearances, ukiyo-e are far from traditional. Success depended on working with the restrictions of the form as well as adopting new techniques and technologies to produce a vision of the world as an integrated whole.

From the start of the nineteenth century, the teams used an equivalent to printers’ register marks to ensure colours did not overlap. Still, multiple colours and detailing required greater skill and time on the part of the woodcarver. Perhaps for this reason, there is little use of shadow while space is left unprinted. Yet far from leading to flatness, this “empty space” lends ukiyo-e to the incorporation of text and, with its greatest practitioners, an intimation of the sublime.

Hiroshige’s views of Edo use blank backgrounds to create height and perspective. Mt Fuji floats above the street scene, suggesting a transcendent world above the everyday. The sakura festival promises a glimpse of this world with the white heart of the cherry tree illuminating the blossoms and the street below.

We see this again in Hokusai’s “Ono Waterfall on the Kisokaidō,” from A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces, and in his most celebrated work, “Under the Wave off Kanagawa”.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). “Ono Waterfall on the Kisokaidō,” from A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces (1835). Woodblock print. Centre Céramique, Maastricht, Netherlands. Public domain via Wikipedia.
Katsushika Hokusai. “Under the Wave off Kanagawa”, from Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji. Woodblock print, about 1831. The British Museum, London. Public domain via Wikipedia.

In 1831, Hokusai and his publisher started promoting “Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji. Drawn by Old Man Itsu, the former Hokusai, printed in blue.” In “Under the Wave”, he incorporated European techniques he saw in works brought by the Dutch East India Company to create perspective. He also used a new product from Germany’s industrial revolution: hydrogen cyanide, or Prussian Blue, the first chemically stable blue pigment. The print marks a brilliant synthesis of the everyday and the sublime, change and stability, tradition and modernity, east and west.

Modern Uses

Edo’s Floating World came to an end with the opening of Japan to the western trade in 1853 and the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868. In the rapid industrialization that followed, new, faster printing methods replaced the woodblock printing culture. It seems that Hokusai’s “Great Wave” prefigured the globalised modernity that would crash over the world.

Yet, the aesthetic and working principles of ukiyo-e survive. They’re there in spiritually informed manga of Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) and Go Nagai’s Devilman. We see it when Seibu Railways reminds us to behave beautifully with a vision of our own floating world.

Edo’s shadowless world follows us when in 2006 Jamie Hewlett transformed a sixteenth-century Chinese novel into Monkey: Journey to the West, an opera directed by Chen Shi-Zheng with music by Gorillaz.

In an age of collaboration and cross-promotion, it is no surprise to learn that the winner of Uniqlo’s Creative Award in 2005, Yusuke Hanai, follows his compatriots, by finding inspiration in the everyday. Like them, he works with the brands of his day (Patagonia, VANS, and Huckberry) as well as the Adachi Institute of Contemporary Ukiyo-e.

Or is it they who follow him? Thirteen years after Hanai’s success, Uniqlo launched a series of Hokusai T-shirts. All blue, the series was branded not Prussian blue, but after the man who made the colour his own: Hokusai Blue.

Please do not rush onto trains
‘Please do not rush onto trains’, March 2017. ‘Please do not use smartphones while walking’, July 2017. ‘Please consider others when moving bulky luggage’, October 2017.
Yumiko Yokoyama (Art Director) and Takahiro Kadowaki (Illustrator) for the Seibu Railway through the agency of Dentsu Inc. Tokyo. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Fair use via Victoria and Albert Museum.
Hajime Isayama (b. 1986). Cover art for Attack on Titan, volume 1. Published: Kodansha, Tokyo (2009). Fair use via Wikipedia.
Poster for Devilman Crybaby. Netflix, 2018. Directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Based on Go Nagai’s manga, Devilman. Fair use via Wikipedia.
Jamie Hewlett. (b. 1968). “Stone Egg”. Poster for Monkey: Journey to the West.
United Kingdom. (2006). Fair use via Wikipedia.

Today, we live amidst the visual clutter of a world saturated with images and messages, a world where we say art is corrupted by commerce and advertising. The pictures of Edo’s Floating World tell us this is nothing new, that this is life. It just depends on how we look at it.

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Note on Images

The images here have been selected because they are in the public domain. They may not correspond with the institutional information given. This institutional information indicates where an original print can be found.


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