The Cat in the Bag: Inventing Japanese Pop Art
If you want to place your finger on the pulse of 21st-Century pop culture, all you have to do is look at some 19th-Century Japanese woodcut prints.
Ukiyoe (浮世絵, also written ukiyo-e or ukiyo e; last vowel like “May”) is a style of woodblock printing and painting that hit its stride in the 1800s. Just as the Internet brought creative works into our hands on a previously unseen scale, so ukiyoe brought art to the Edo era’s everyday people. It is from ukiyoe that manga would later evolve.
Even if you think you don’t know ukiyoe, turns out that you actually do. You’ve definitely seen this massive tsunami in books or on posters. If you’re reading this in the USA, you’ve seen it in a strip-mall sushi joint.
“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” - Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1830)
Kiriko Watanabe, assistant curator of the West Vancouver Museum, showed me a collection of ukiyoe prints that she had escorted from Tokyo to Vancouver for the exhibition she is masterminding: Ukiyoe Spectacular. I hung out with Watanabe at an izakaya under the train tracks in Yurakucho last month. She was a bit nervous about transporting such fragile and valuable works of art across the ocean, but she was also psyched to share them with the Pacific Northwest. Weeks later, as we washed our hands and carefully flipped through print after print (Demons! Goblins! Prodigiously-proportioned tanuki!*), I was overwhelmed by the minute detail and rich color found on every square inch of every picture.
A woman sacrificing herself to the waves to soothe an angry ocean.
Samurai locked in battle as their vendetta comes to its final conclusion.
Inanimate objects that have sprung to life, cavorting with demons in the dead of night.
A gigantic skeleton summoned to protect an already-ruined castle. Come on, you gotta see this:
“Princess Takiyasha Calling Up a Monstrous Skeleton Spectre at the Haunted Old Palace of Soma” - Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1845)
There was enough intense and gorgeous imagery bursting forth from that stack of fragile prints to inspire a thousand tattoos that would get you a lifetime ban from most public bathhouses, hot springs, and capsule hotels.
And there, among the fury and the folly, was the frolic. Behold, Utagawa Kunitoshi’s “The World of Cats- New Edition,” from 1886:
Do you see it, too? Right there at the lower third. A tiny cat, its head stuck in a tiny bag:
Our collective obsession with cats who crawl into tight spaces must exist at a genetic level: the notion of cats leaping into boxes and bags is inherently funny. We need to look at these images, and we’re compelled to share them with our friends.
As such, this playful cat has echoed forward in time, past the invention of airplanes, Velcro, and the Internet; leading us once again to a cat with its head stuck in a bag... and you know his name.
So, yeah, with the scaled-up creation of artworks came the widespread distribution of humorous cat pictures. History proves it, beyond any shadow of doubt.
Also hidden among the ukiyoe treasures was a 19th-Century animated gif. Since we’re talking about an era before electricity, never mind networked computers, this simple moving picture was human-powered: a triptych with several panels which the viewer flips to advance the story. Here Watanabe demonstrates 19th-century interactive art. She has a really cool job.
Detail from “Quick Transformation from the Scene of Four Attendants of Shinshida Forest to the Scene of Four Apparitions,” by Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III)
As the past informs the future, so the future pays tribute to the past. Episode 5 of “Samurai Champloo” features real-life ukiyoe artist Harunobu Suzuki, famous for his prints of hot young ladies. This dude was Terry Richardson long before there was a Terry Richardson.
Here’s the episode - put on your headphones if you’re at work:
A direct line takes us from Harunobu Suzuki to Takashi Miike and Michael Bay: we’ve always gotten off on images of sex and violence.
You can call Samurai Champloo an anachronistic pastiche, but it would be more accurate to say that this anime sees history in the present tense; just as Tokyo exists simultaneously in 1860, 1960, 2260.
Ukiyoe often centers on extremes, conflict, and strife. Long before Keanu Reeves, the tale of the 47 Ronin was told through ukiyoe. That one guy way over on the left is totally screwed.
“Night Attack of the Loyal Retainers from the Chushingura Story of the Forty-Seven Ronin” - Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1852)
Ukiyoe action scenes were not limited to samurai throwdowns: as the Great Wave print suggests, natural disasters also inspired countless artistic interpretations and socio-political barbs. For example, in “Bird of Suffering Carrying Away the Catfish” (artist unknown, c.1855), we can see a group of construction professionals toasting an earthquake, as personified by a giant catfish in the clutches of a soaring bird, itself made up of all the household objects that get smashed when tectonic plates shift. That catfish raised some hell and these gents are thrilled, because they’re about to make some serious money.
How would TEPCO be depicted?
Disaster in creature form… hey, that sounds monstrously familiar…
From earthquake-as-giant-fish, we’ve graduated to nuclear-disaster-as-man-in-lizard-suit.
Hail to the king, baby.
Ukiyoe goes much further than these examples, in every conceivable direction. Three-bodied samurai sharing a single head. A playful octopus-man straight out of Ringo Starr’s lyric-book. Hiragana syllabaries made of birds. Drunk guys imitating Mt. Fuji in shadow-play. DIY cat puppets. Demons. So many demons.
Drop what you’re doing and research ukiyoe further. You’ll witness imagination off the leash and running gloriously amok. Contemporary Japanese media will make perfect sense. More importantly, you’ll see a documentation, an affirmation of the timeless spark that ignites in our eyes when we encounter the magic of fine visual storytelling.
• • •
AkihabaraNews contributor Jordan Yerman is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, by way of London and New York. He previously worked as an actor, which means he was also a proofreader, model, technical consultant, HR trainer, sign-placer, sales director, crate stacker, bartender, photographer, real estate broker, and even an exhibit at the Bronx Museum. You can currently find him as the City Affairs and Entertainment Editor for the Vancouver Observer.
If you like robots and the kindly automation that factors into everyday Japanese life, give some of Jordan’s other work a read ASAP: "Conversations with my Shower and other Friendly Japanese Machines.”
• • •
*Reader’s might be interested to know that the tanuki, an raccoon-like animal indigenous to Japan and traditionally regarded as a trickster in fable, is often depicted with what can only be referred to as disproportionately huge testicles. Like... massive.
Full ukiyoe scans: Shinichi Inagaki and West Vancouver Museum
Close-up ukiyoe details: Jordan Yerman
Godzilla: Mankind’s carelessness with nuclear technology