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The Dartmouth
May 29, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Japan's 'Floating World' offers parallels to our own

Doomed lovers, heart-wrenching drama, epic tragedy, sword fights and beautiful people galore -- believe it or not, these aren't the catch phrases for the current movie offerings at the local multiplex.

Instead, the buzzwords above describe a popular culture that is remarkably resonant with our own, but which captivated Japanese audiences centuries ago. The popular pleasures and pastimes of Tokugawa-period Japan (1600"1868) provide the focus for the Hood Museum's current exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints, "Inside the Floating World: Japanese Prints from the Lenoir C. Wright Collection."

The "floating world" -- "ukiyo" in Japanese -- refers to the two "pleasure districts" that typified the lively urban culture of Edo, Japan's largest city, now known as Tokyo. With a name evocative of the ephemeral thrills and transient intrigues of the world of entertainment, this "floating world" comprised the enormously popular Kabuki theater district and the Yoshiwara, the government-licensed brothel district.

Much as visitors to Edo must have been enamoured by the dazzle of the capital city, the Hood's exhibition similarly lures its viewers into the pleasures of the "floating world." In fact, "Inside the Floating World" is designed as a teaching exhibition, expressly tailored to provide a learning experience for its viewers, offering visual access to a now-distant culture through the 60 woodblock prints presented in the show.

Viewers of the exhibition can view the same "floating world pictures," or "ukiyo-e," that celebrated life in these pleasure districts and that so engaged Japanese consumers back then. Reproduced in bulk for the mass market, the woodblock prints played off their entertainment-seeking audience's interest in everything au courant. Contemporary Japanese audiences would have purchased these prints as visual celebrations of this frequently hedonistic aspect of their own culture.

"These prints were intended for an urban audience, for people in love with their city and enthralled by the leading actors and courtesans of the time," said art history professor Allen Hockley, who designed the exhibition to coincide with his Japanese print class this term.

The prints themselves became much-desired commodities within the very same consumer culture they depict in their intricately detailed and vivid images. In preparing the exhibition, Hockley hoped to use the prints as a means of allowing visitors to get a glimpse into the fleeting indulgences and pastimes that encapsulated this "floating world" while at the same time illustrating the actual art of the printmaking process.

The artist's initial sketch, in which he would have provided the outline for the final image one sees today, was only the start of a much lengthier woodblock carving process. In a color print, every color would have required the carving of a separate wood block. Each color would have been printed individually on the sheet of paper, one layered atop another, in the end composing a complete colored image.

Since the process is so difficult to visualize, Hockley has augmented the exhibition with an extensive website (located at featuring actual video footage of a local print artist, Matt Brown, who works in a style similar to that of the Japanese artists featured in the show.

For printers seeking a relatively cheap form through which to mass-produce images of the "floating world," the easy reproducibility of the woodblock-based prints seemed ideal. People of all classes and all regions of Japan could readily collect these images as reminders of their Kabuki theater experience or as a means of keeping up to date with the most current trends and fashions.

Appropriately, then, the first print in the show positions its viewers directly in the heart of the one of the most revered spheres of the "floating world": the Kabuki theater.

"The exhibition opens to the Morita Theater interior as a testimonial to the popularity of the theater form," Hockley said.

In the same way we're fascinated with the world of entertainment today, the Japanese audience was similarly enthralled by the world of the Kabuki theater. In capturing visually the pleasures of the theater dis-trict, the print artists gave former Ka-buki audience members the chance to return again and again to the Kabuki experience, even long after they had returned home from a show itself. The audiences could re-visit the most iconic scenes of a popular play, such as "Chshingu-ra," which was often represented in a series of 11 prints, one for each of the play's eleven acts.

In their prints, too, artists gave consumers the opportunity to peek into Kabuki's even more intriguing inner world. Whereas the audience was once restricted to viewing only the dramas playing out on the stage before them, the purchasers of these prints were now invited behind the curtains into the previously inaccessible actors' dressing rooms.

This fascination with the lives of beautiful and famous people of the day explains the simultaneous appeal of the second realm of the "floating world" -- the brothel district. Far from a lurid and scandalous underworld of prostitution, Yoshiwara embodied the world of glamour, quickly becoming the site from which people would determine the standards of beauty and contemporary fashion.

Accordingly, Hockley refers to the genre of prints focused on this courtesan culture as beauty prints. While these images demonstrated to contemporary audiences the cutting-edge styles of their day, the same prints now provide modern viewers essentially with a history of Japanese fashion.

"Courtesans were almost like our supermodels today. They defined the latest hairstyles. These prints told people what women were supposed to be wearing now. This was a culture with very complex protocol," Hockley said.

Indeed, these beauty prints show how the ideals of beauty changed over the years, with the earliest prints featuring average-sized and fairly robust women, while in slightly later prints women appear thinner and almost adolescent in build. These beauty prints acted much like magazines and television programs do today, extending the reach and influences of the popular culture of the Tokugawa period far beyond boundaries of Edo itself.

By the early 1800s, though, print artists began to expand their repertoires, realizing that there were other popular interests and themes that would also appeal to a print-collecting public. Moving away from the world of high fashion and performance alone, artists created prints hearkening to the classical past and to familiar epic stories, elements of popular culture as familiar to audiences as the latest Kabuki play. Pilgrimages through the Japanese country to sites such as Mount Fuji also became extremely popular pastimes by the late 1700s. As a result, artists chose to focus a new genre of landscape prints on people traveling through and admiring the Japanese countryside.

Not all prints were commercial and intended for a wide consumer audience. In fact, the prints Hockley calls the most exquisite in the show fall under the category of "surimono," or privately commissioned, limited-edition prints.

"These are the best of the best. They are much more understated but are the most exceptional. This is the art at its highest form -- the high culture of the low culture of prints," Hockley said.

In addition to their enormous attention to detail and more extensive use of color, these commissioned prints also anticipate a more literate and intellectual audience than those who purchased the more typical "floating world" prints of Kabuki actors or beautiful courtesans. Often, surimono prints would be designed to celebrate the high arts, depicting in visual form the best poems or music of the period.

In the end, though, all of the prints in the exhibition offer modern-day viewers unique entrance into a pleasure-seeking society apparently as intrigued by its own popular culture as we are. Most importantly, though, "Inside the Floating World" also invites viewers to appreciate the consumer savvy of these print artists and relish in the sheer beauty and intricacy of the prints themselves.

"For an ephemeral art form, these prints go far deeper than you might first imagine," Hockley said. "The bottom line is: these things are gorgeous."