This post is by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.
As part of the Library’s “Anime for All” event series in conjunction with the Asian pop-culture convention Otakon, we’ve put together a special public display highlighting Japanese graphic arts and storytelling. It includes some spectacular portraits of heroic warriors, including a portrait of Hangaku Gozen, a historical woman warrior who lived around the year 1200, as well as a depiction of the famous 17th-century samurai swordsman, writer, and artist Miyamoto Musashi. Both come from the Library’s collection of about 2,500 Japanese color woodblocks from the Edo Period (1603-1868) that are part of a special genre called ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating or sorrowful world.
Very broadly, these artworks reflected life in the pleasure and theater districts in Edo (now Tokyo) including the celebrity culture of beautiful women, kabuki idols, and dashing samurai. The sorrowful part refers to Buddhist concepts of impermanence and the idea that this “floating” world of pleasurable diversions was transitory. Ukiyo-e subject matter embraced all that was new and fashionable but also classical themes from Japanese literature, poetry, history, and mythology.
Though ukiyo-e images are celebrated for their artistic and technical mastery today, they were initially considered a popular form of mass entertainment. In this sense, they’ve been compared to contemporary Japanese manga comic art. Both feature highly narrative, story-telling images. Also like manga, these images were very affordable. It is said that you could buy a print for about the cost of a bowl of noodles.
In addition to parallels with manga, ukiyo-e prints have had a powerful, lasting influence on generations of artists in Europe, the United States, Japan, and beyond. The Library’s visual art collections are rich in examples by such artist/printmakers as Mary Cassatt, Keiji Shinohara, and Roger Shimomura. Japanese aesthetic influence can also be traced through examples in our poster, comic art, and illustration collections. One of our most recent acquisitions is a digital print called Vastra & Jenny by illustrator and cartoonist Bill Mudron in which the artist has dropped characters from the BBC sci-fi television series Doctor Who into an ukiyo-e snow scene (the original woodcut is preserved at the Library) by Hiroshige and Kunisada.
To discover more of these fascinating works of art, explore the Library’s collection of Japanese woodblock prints and drawings and the Library of Congress online exhibition The Floating World of Ukiyo-e: Dreams, Shadows, and Substance.