Tōkaidō Meisho Zue is a woodblock painting by Utagawa Yoshitora made in the year of 1864. The alternative title is “Panoramic view of the noted places along the Tōkaidō”. Just like the title indicated, this painting illustrates the famous places along the high way of Tōkaidō. We can see the area covered in this map is from from Edo to Kyoto because of the explanatory note in the map. For example, in the most upper left, besides the building there is a note writes “kyo”, which means “capital”. In the lower right, besides the bridge the note writes, “Nihon bashi”. Nihon bashi is today one of the landmarks in Tokyo. We can see the lines between different wood blocks from the scanned copy. The whole painting is made up by twelve pieces of panels in all. The title of the painting, “Tōkaidō Meisho Zue” is on the rightest panel, which indicates the direction of the painting is from Edo in the right end to Kyodo in the left end.
The creator, Utagawa Yoshitora, is the student of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a member of the Utagawa School. The Utagawa School is named after the founder Utagawa Toyoharu (Nagai, 2012, p.225). In the Edo period, ukiyo-e is a very popular genre among the Japanese artists from the 17th century. The peaceful time and economic development during the Edo period has made artworks available to a lot of common people, or in today terms, middle class. The term, ukiyo-e, literally means pictures of the floating world in Japanese, and it is a metaphor for the common world in contrast to elite world. Most people who consumed the artworks were common people, especially merchants. Therefore, the everyday lives of common people is an important theme of ukiyo-e art, including kabuki actors, geisha, or even just one or two people walking on the street. When common people became rich enough in the end of Edo period and start to travel, the travel scenes and landscapes became another topic for ukiyo-e artists, just like this painting, an illustration of the Tokaido highway. The creator of this woodblock painting, Utagawa Yoshitora is himself a ukiyo-e artist. But when he was active, the genre of ukiyo-e is declining. Only four years after he created this painting, 1868, the Edo period was ended by the Meiji Restoration, and the traditional ukiyo-e art became no longer popular. The declining popularity of the ukiyo-e art is mainly because the preference of the western style arts. Even in the time of Utagawa Toyoharu, the founder of Utagawa School, the artist “copied Dutch copperplate print landscapes of Venice, Amsterdam, and other places and turned them into color woodblock prints” (Nagai, 225). So the artists of that generation were already influenced by the western arts. So the audience can find elements of both western arts and ukiyo-e art in this painting.
For example, we can notice that this painting use very bright and contrasting colors, which is common in ukiyo-e artworks, especially for the creator Yoshitora’s teacher, Kuniyoshi. In another Japanese author, Kafu Nagai’s words, “Kuniyoshi’s art is always filled with vitality, and his line-drawing is usually admirably clear and precise. He fondly mixes red and indigo and utilizes extremely clear apple green, and he demonstrates the beauty of color tone that one sees in woodblock printing before the Bunka period. Yet in depicting warriors in battle, quite to the contrary, he matches the coloring to the theme by deliberately using many contrasting colors to collide and confuse” (Nagai, 2012, p.227). From this painting, we can clearly see the influence of Kuniyoshi on Yoshitora. The use of bright colors in this painting is in stark contrast of another school of Japanese painting in the Edo period called Bunjinga. Bunjinga literally means “literati painting”. The artists in this school deem themselves as the scholars and elites of the society. The feature of Bunjinga is that this school of painting was heavily influenced by the Chinese painting, shan shui painting. Shan shui means mountain and water, so the common theme in the shan shui genre is scenery and natural landscapes such as mountains. The most obvious feature of shan shui painting or Bunjinga painting is its use of light color. One of the most famous bunjinga artists in Japan is Ike no Taiga in the Edo period. If you compare the painting of Taiga with this one, one can immediately notice their different use of color. “The combination of pink and blue pigment, also a direct reference to Chinese painting, had appeared in the work of the first generation of Japanese masters who allied themselves with Chinese literati art” (Takeuchi, 1992, p7). One reason of the light color use is that the bunjinga and shan shui painting is painted with ink on paper and every piece of them are unique works, whereas the ukiyo-e woodblock painting is for mass production. The coloring on the woodblocks is a much easier process. This is similar to the Western oil painting, because the oil is usually very thick in the Western oil painting. Because the different nature of the pigment, the artist can easily control and change the color, whereas in the shan shui painting, once the painting is finished, it is very hard to re-color. Despite the contrast of use of color, there is one common thing between bunjinga painting and ukiyo-e painting. Influenced by Chinese shan shui painting, the artists of both genres would incorporate poetry into their paintings.
Another feature of ukiyo-e artwork is the incorporation of common people in the painting. For example, there are many people depicted in this painting. This map is really between the genre of map and painting, because usually in the map, the life of people will not be included if the map wants to be informative and descriptive only. Therefore the intended audience should be fans of arts and painting, instead of travellers. There are marching armies, working people along the river loading the ships, horses, boatmen, etc. This is very similar to one of the most famous Chinese paintings called Along the River During the Qingming Festival. This Chinese painting is also a long scroll map of the Chinese capital city with many ordinary people depicted in it. Both paintings are not for people who intend to travel along the Tokaido or Chinese capital. According to Robert Goree, a scholar on Japanese visual culture, “the consumers of [the whole genre of] meisho zue did not use them as travel guidebooks, but rather as stimulants to engage in a premodern mode of virtual travel, by which they enjoyed vicarious experiences of place without the attendant corporeal and economic drawbacks of physical travel” (2017, p.75). In other words, both Along the River During the Qingming Festival and meisho zue of this type have the function of comic books, which tells story to the audience. In another Utagawa member, Utagawa Hiroshige’s famous ukiyo-e painting, “The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō”, the common people’s life is an important source and theme in the paintings. It seems that this is a tradition for the Utagawa artists. In other artworks with similar titles in the Tokugawa Open collection, such as “Tokaido meishgi ichiran” by Hokusai Katsushika, “Miyako meisho zue” by Mahiko Kawakita, “Edo meishi no e” by Shoshin Kuwagata, the painting serves more mapping function than story-telling function. This is also the conclusion of Traganou in her investigation of many meisho zue about the highway along Tokaido, “During the Edo period, the Tōkaidō figured in the collective imagination as a space of play and release, while at the same time it was the locus of famous places (meisho), poetically attested locales that were scattered within the territory of Japan… Notions and concepts embodied by such material expand beyond the narrow definition of the road as a traveling route” (2004, p.1). To take this paining by Yoshitora as an example of the artist’s inaccurate representation of the Hokaido, the distance from Kyoto to the Mount Fuji is about twice as long as that from Edo to the Mount Fuji, whereas the fact is that the distance from Kyoto to the Mount Fuji is much more than the painting. This is only one small example of the artist selective and inaccurate representation of the Tokaido.
This painting of Yoshitora is discussed in two bigger contexts. One is the genre of ukiyo-e art under the Western influence, and the other is a variety of function that the genre of “meisho zue” serve at the Edo period. In summary, there are a few similarities between ukiyo-e art works and western oil painting we are able to notice in this painting. The feature of their production process allows the artist to use contrasting and bright colors in their works, and also the western geometrical perspective also influence Japanese artist’s works. But different from the Western oil painting that strives to reproduce the subjects precisely, this paining is far more than a precise and accurate representation of the Tokaido highway. Instead, in this category of meisho zue in Edo Japan, many artists only choose what they want to represent in a selective way and help the audience wander in their works in their imaginations.
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Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, no. 23, 2017, pp. 73-107.
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