The Social Fabric
KIYOMASU. Actors' Boating Party
The social fabric in old Japan was one of sharp distinctions. At the upper end of the scale were the Emperor; the kuge, or court nobles; the daimyo, or lords of the two hundred and fifty-one provinces; and the samurai, or hereditary military men, from whom were recruited the officials, priests, and scholars. Between these and the lower classes was an almost immeasurable gulf. Highest among the heimen, or commoners, were the farmers. Below them were the artisans, and still lower were the merchants, innkeepers, servants, and the like; while lowest of all were the eta, or outcasts, a class comprising scavengers, butchers, leather-workers, and others engaged in what were considered degrading occupations.
Under the peaceful regime of the Tokugawa shoguns there was a sociological change that in the cities almost amounted to a transformation. The most salient feature was the rise of the tradesmen and artisans to wealth and power. Many places of amusement sprang up, restaurants and tea-houses multiplied, jugglers, story-tellers, musicians, and other itinerant entertainers found audiences in every street, fêtes were frequently held in the temple compounds, the theatre rose to a position of prominence, and the yukwaku, or courtesan quarters, with their medley of attractions, became established institutions.
The art of the Ukiyoé was a direct outcome of the gay life of this time. The inception of the school dates back to the closing years of the sixteenth century, when a reaction set in against the Chinese classicism of the Ashikaga period. This manifested itself in the choice of Japanese instead of Chinese subjects, and in novel treatment in which features of both the classic Kano and Tosa styles were combined, but which in many respects broke away from academic traditions. The reputed leader of the revolt was Iwasa Shoi, better known as Matahei, son of the Daimyo of Itami; but other distinguished artists, notably Kano Sanraku, also painted pictures in the new manner, which was not then held to constitute a distinct school. The subjects being drawn from the life of the people, these pictures were called Ukiyoé. É is the Japanese term for a picture or drawing.(1) Ukiyo, as originally written, had a Buddhistic signification and was applied to the secular as distinguished from the ecclesiastical world. Literally the word means "the miserable world," but as now used it may be more accurately translated as "the passing (or floating) world of every-day life."
Perhaps for the reason that Ukiyoé themes were not considered quite dignified, and because they did not express poetic ideas, the Ukiyo paintings of Matahei and his contemporaries and successors, though prized and much sought after, were seldom signed, and the identification of their authorship is a matter of extreme difficulty. For more than half a century works in this manner continued to be produced in considerable numbers, but the movement did not crystallize into a school until, in the person of Hishikawa Moronobu, a leader appeared to give it form and direction. Moronobu was an artist of rare distinction. His paintings were eagerly sought by the daimyos and the wealthier samurai. But Moronobu was a man of the people, and it was as a designer of book illustrations and later of ichimai-yé, or single-sheet prints, that he gave the impetus to Ukiyoé. For fifty years or more prior to his time books with engraved illustrations had been published in Japan, but they were comparatively few and the illustrations were poor and crudely executed. The twelve drawings Moronobu made for a book of instruction for women in etiquette and hygiene, published in 1659, marked a decided advance. This, so far as we know, was the first of a long series of books illustrated by him. Their popularity was deservedly great, and by them his fame became wide-spread. The illustrations were printed in black from blocks similar to those from which the text was printed, and were characterized by fine broad treatment and a rather wiry but strong and expressive outline.
About 1670 Moronobu began to issue large single-sheet prints which could be affixed to screens or mounted as kakemono. These prints, which were impressions in black from one block only, are known as sumi-yé-sumi
being the Japanese name for Chinese-or, as we incorrectly call it, India-ink. They were designed to be coloured by hand, and apparently a part of the edition was so coloured before being placed on sale by the publishers. At first this colouring consisted of a few touches of yellow-green crudely laid on; later it became more elaborate, and occasionally we meet with prints that are very beautifully coloured, but in such cases it is impossible to tell when or by whom the colouring was done. The probability is that in some instances it was the work of purchasers of the prints.
Moronobu's pupils, of whom there were many, devoted themselves almost exclusively to painting. After his death in 1695, the production of prints fell chiefly into the hands of Torii Kiyonobu and his son Torii Kiyomasu, two artists who take rank among the most talented men of the Ukiyoé school. Moronobu had taken for the subjects of his prints historic incidents, the manners and customs of the people, and, in particular, women and their occupations and amusements. To these the Torii artists, seeing a new and fertile field for the print-designer in the rise of the theatre as a popular form of entertainment, added portraits of actors in the costumes of their most admired rôles. Especially esteemed were Kiyonobu's portraits of the first DanjuÌroÌ. During the Genroku period (1688-1704) the people developed a passion for the theatre that amounted to veritable madness. In the first quarter of the eighteenth century this reached a height that sorely troubled the Tokugawa rulers. To check it various expedients-among them the exclusion of women from the stage-were tried. They only added fuel to the flame. Certain gross practices were abolished. This helped to purify the theatre, but also to perpetuate it by removing the seeds of what must inevitably have meant its early decay. Actors of distinguished ability became popular idols. Their comings and goings were like royal progresses. Wherever they went, were it to view the cherry blossoms at Ueno, for a boating party on the river, or for a visit to the Yoshiwara, they moved in state. Yet their rank in the social scale was so low that they were looked upon as little better than eta. The earliest actors were contemptuously termed kawara-mono
(river-bed folk), from the fact that the first theatrical performances in Japan were upon a stage erected in the dry bed of the Kamogawa at Kyoto. The stigma that attached to their origin and to the vulgarity of the early performances has never been entirely lifted. Many of the Ukiyoé artists felt it a degradation to make drawings of actors. Nevertheless the popular demand created a supply, and for more than a century a large proportion of the enormous output of prints consisted of theatrical scenes and portraits of the performers.