Tsukioka Yoshitoshi is widely recognised as the last great master of traditional Japanese woodblock printing, known as ukiyo-e, and an originator of manga and anime. He is renowned for his highly imaginative, often flamboyant and even disturbing depictions of historical events, warriors, beautiful women and the supernatural. His career straddled two eras – the final years of the Edo period (1615–1868) and the first few decades of modern Japan.
Yoshitoshi was born in Edo (current-day Tokyo) on 30 April 1839. His father, Owariya Kinzaburō (1815–63), was a merchant who bought samurai status in order to advance in the hierarchical class structure of Tokugawa Japan. Yoshitoshi’s parents are believed to have divorced, but most of what is known about Yoshitoshi’s personal life was written in the 1930s by his student Yamanaka Kodō (1869–1945) and is considered unreliable.
From 1850 until about 1859, the young Yoshitoshi was apprenticed to Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861), one of the most famous ukiyo-e designers of the time, whose work is represented in the Art Gallery of NSW collection. In 1853 Yoshitoshi published his first print, The drowning of the Heike clan in 1185.
Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan steadily opened up to the rest of the world. It was a time of rapid industrialisation in which new technologies such as photography and lithography were introduced. Change was also reflected in the prints being produced in Japan in the latter part of the 19th century, as artists chronicled the modernisation of the country – from transformations in cityscapes to the adoption of Western attire. Kuniyoshi’s interest in European prints appears to have influenced Yoshitoshi’s approach to perspective, realism and the individuality of the subject.
In 1861 Kuniyoshi died, followed by Yoshitoshi’s father in 1863. Although his personal name was Yonejirō, after these events the artist called himself Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (‘yoshi’ derived from the second character in ‘Kuniyoshi’).
Initially enthusiastic and open to Western influxes, Yoshitoshi became increasingly sceptical about the loss of numerous aspects of traditional Japanese art and culture, and concentrated his efforts in introducing new themes and techniques to the stagnant art of ukiyo-e. A prolific artist, he soon became known for his representations of gruesome yet compelling fantasies including an early series, Twenty-eight famous murders accompanied by verse [Eimei Nijūhashūku] 1866–67 (with Utagawa Yoshiiku). His macabre 1885 diptych A picture of the lonely house on Adachi Moor [Ōshū Adachigahara hitotsuya no zu] shows a pregnant woman strung upside-down by a hag who prepares to slice her open. Yoshitoshi’s habitual use of such themes led to conjecture about his troubled personal life including financial problems, failed relationships and mental breakdowns.
Yoshitoshi’s final work before his death in 1892 was the quieter One hundred aspects of the moon [Tsuki hyakushi], the complete series of which is in the Art Gallery of NSW collection. Each of its 100 images draws from stories relating to the moon in Japanese and Chinese history, legends, literature, theatre and folklore, and reflecting on the human condition. The characters in the stories are diverse, from everyday townspeople to courtesans, warriors, samurai and demons. In this work, Yoshitoshi was able to introduce new techniques such as perspective and realism to ukiyo-e printmaking. Published between 1885 and 1892, the series is recognised as the artist’s masterwork and a supreme masterpiece of Japanese printmaking.