Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Tranquil art and natural beauty! Part One

04 Jul

Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Tranquil art and natural beauty!  Part One

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times


Utagawa Kuniyoshi is amongst the crème de la crème of ukiyo-e because his art work was truly amazing and so powerful.  Kuniyoshi, just like other famous Japanese artists like Ando Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai, was very diverse and the window of the new Japan was on its way.

This article is based on three tranquil art pieces by Kuniyoshi. However, just like life these three glimpses into Kuniyoshi and his style are misleading. Nevertheless, given the amount of art that Kuniyoshi produced then a more tranquil based article suits the introduction for lay people who only know snippets about this talented artist.

Also, human nature is complex and the outside persona and internal reality is often very different.  Therefore, by providing a glimpse into the natural aspect of Kuniyoshi’s art I hope to relate this with the calm before the storm.

After all, Kuniyoshi was born in 1798 and died in 1861 and he belonged to a world of continuity during the Edo Period but when his life was nearing the end, the Edo Period was also succumbing to outside forces and internal power issues.

By showing only three art pieces of Kuniyoshi I hope to transform these three images into a different meaning.  This applies to the safety of the past irrespective if our recollections of our early years are often clouded by nostalgia and a yearning of the dead souls which have become mere memories.

Kuniyoshi and other famous ukiyo-e artists also take you back to a different Japan in all its confusion.  Therefore, Kuniyoshi designed prints which covered a vast spectrum and this applies to landscapes, women, kabuki, humor, nature, satire, shunga, cats, surimono and other areas.  

His legacy and style especially applies to depicting historical figures, warriors, events in history and legends which helped to inspire and open-up the viewer to the past.

It is apparent that Hokusai (1760-1849) had much more political and sexual freedom and this notably applies to Hokusai’s shunga which is very powerful and erotic.  However, the Tenpo reforms of the early 1840s introduced measures which banned prints of erotic women and actors who belonged to the kabuki scene.  This meant that Kuniyoshi had to focus more on warriors and legends but his historical depictions were under close scrutiny. Therefore the popular satire of shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi and other prints led to an official reprimand and many prints were confiscated and destroyed.

Kuniyoshi was influenced to some extent by Katsukawa Shuntei (1770-1820) and this applies to warrior prints that he produced and not to other areas of his artwork. However, the early period for Kuniyoshi was not easy and it wasn’t until 1827 that he made a major breakthrough.  This applies to The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden All Told.

The three art pieces in this article depict a natural and cultural aspect of Japan.  At The Shore of the Sumida River shows the power of nature and the reality of everyday life.  The only individual face that you can see is in a natural state and he looks worn out and battling against the elements and fatigue. 

However, the Mt. Fuji from Sumida shows a breathtaking landscape and two people are in awe of the stunning beauty and another individual is walking blissfully alone.  The image also shows you a child who is enjoying life with his mother and playing. Also, unlike the older individuals the child is in a dream world because of natural joy and the energy of childhood can be seen.

The serenity of the image and exquisite color scheme alongside the backdrop of Mount Fuji is a beautiful illustration of Kuniyoshi’s art. 

Pilgrims in the Waterfall depicts the unity of faith and nature and while Buddhism was powerful in this period in Japan the indigenous faith of Shinto is “the real faith of Japan.” This applies to the power of ancestors, the spirit world, nature and humanity being in co-existence and other aspects that run through the veins of Japan’s history.

It would not really matter if the image was a pilgrimage to Buddhism or Shintoism because the natural image of nature and the power of the waterfall could only connect you with Shintoism.  Therefore, despite the power of Buddhism in this period in Japan the old world survived and this applies to the world of Shintoism and the mystery of gods within nature.

These three images depict a natural Japan and show a world which was far from the political intrigues of the day.  The serenity which can be felt by the Pilgrims in the Waterfall is a stunning image which connects humanity with nature but in a natural and simplistic way.  Therefore, no religious building is needed and instead the pilgrimage at its heart is interwoven with the power of nature. 

Similarly, Mt. Fuji from Sumida shows the stunning beauty of Japan and the scene highlights natural beauty and everyday life and thought patterns.  Older individuals are in awe while the child is blissfully happy irrespective of the stunning background.

Therefore, the three images of Kuniyoshi in this article are focused on only one side of his art work but Kuniyoshi was very diverse and during the reforms of the early 1840s he did not remain placid.  – Fantastic website and just click onto the section you are interested in.  please visit

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Posted by on July 4, 2011 in Japan


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