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.
These works reflect the theme of commoners and ‘the floating world’, a central aspect of the ukiyo-e tradition that depicted everyday life during the Edo period. References are made to the transient life of courtesans who lived in entertainment areas, as well as aspects of peasant life. After the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu made his base in Edo and his authority was established over the country. The representations of everyday people and their activities relate to a time when merchants were becoming more powerful, expenditure started to grow and the samurai increasingly found themselves in debt.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi often presented scenes derived from dramatic nō (‘skill’ or ‘talent’) plays, comic interludes between nō pieces known as kyōgen (‘wild words’), and kabuki theatre. Nō developed from various forms of dance drama and was accepted as an aristocratic art in the late 14th century when it came under the patronage of the Ashikaga shogunate. It was then further developed by the famous dramatist Zeami (c1363–1443). Kabuki, on the other hand, was a popular visual theatre of song and dance that began as street entertainment for commoners. Many of the stories in Japanese drama were adapted from literature and legends that had existed for hundreds of years.
When the samurai, Japan’s military class, seized control of Japan in the 1100s, they established their own artistic traditions influenced by Zen Buddhism, Confucianism and other aspects of Chinese culture. Their exploits were recorded and mythologised in various tales. The images of warriors portrayed by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi come from stories such as The tale of Heike (Heike monogatari), the legend of the battle between the Tairo and the Minomoto clans at the end of the 12th century. Another story referenced is Taikōki or Chronicle of the Taikō (or ‘Regent’) about the life of the great leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi (c1536–98), whose rule was passed to Tokugawa Ieyasu two years after his death.
These stories are set in the Heian period (794–1185) and focus on elites living at the centre of politics and culture in Kyoto. The Heian period was recognised as the golden age of the imperial court. Women of the time were educated and active in literary life, writing stories often set in aristocratic circles, such as The tale of Genji written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century. Fashions of the period, such as shaved eyebrows, loose long hair and layered robes (jūnihitoe) for women, as well as a specific headdress favoured by men, can be identified.
Many of these stories are from Chinese and Japanese literature, legend and mythology. Chinese tales had a great influence on Japanese art and culture, particularly during the Nara period (710–84). Also apparent in Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s prints are the influences of historical events, politics and religion, in particular the adoption of Zen Buddhism and Confucian beliefs during the Tokugawa period (1568–1868). While some of the stories are set in China and feature historical Chinese costume and characters, others are fables particular to Japanese life and culture and were well known to audiences of the time.