Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) is said to be the last great Japanese woodblock print artist of the 19th century. While his contemporaries had begun to lapse into repetitive reworking of the old masters, Yoshitoshi was not afraid to try something new.
With one image Yoshitoshi could tell a whole story. His narrative skill is best appreciated in his most famous work, One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. While western arts were flooding the rapidly modernizing Japan, this wistfully romantic woodcut series was calibrated for an nostalgic audience.
In Aspects of the Moon, Yoshitoshi draws together a wide collection of Japanese myths, traditional folklore, historical characters, and contemporary scenes, all united under the calming motif of the glimmering moon.
Here we have selected 10 of these enchanting woodblock prints so that you too can enjoy Yoshitoshi’s vision of a bygone Japan.
1. Moon of the Pleasure Quarter
The moon’s primary role of course is to usher in the evening.
In this scene cherry blossoms fall like snow, while a courtesan and her attendant pause under the moonlight in Edo’s pleasure quarter. Just like the seasonal flowers themselves, a courtesan’s career was brilliant but brief, earning them the epithet yozakura, cherry blossoms of the night.
2. Cooling off at Shijo
As spring gave way to sultry summer, the Kamo River at the end of Shijo Street became a popular spot to cool off. Here, the white moon against the fading glow over the horizon sets the scene as the end of a stifling day.
This young woman is innocently enjoying the refreshing waters, although Yoshitoshi still aims to titillate the viewer with a suggestive glimpse of her collar and risqué red undergarments.
See how Yoshitoshi's style compares to the Kitagawa Utamaro's vision of beauty:
3. Jade Rabbit
This fantastic scene features the Monkey King, Son Goku, charismatic star of the Chinese classic Journey to the West. In this print, however, he shares top billing with the moon itself, which looms larger in this composition than any other in the series. To further underscore the moon’s presence, Yoshitoshi gives it a face in the form of the Jade Rabbit, whose form is said to appear on its surface.
4. Mountain Moon after Rain
The moon itself is not visible here, and deliberately so. Goro Tokumine sought the cover of darkness to prepare a surprise attack on the Shogun’s camp in 1193 to find and kill his father’s murderer.
Tensions must have been high, but you can see from the deep twist of his body that Goro was very distracted by the cries of the passing bird. Why? The song of the Japanese cuckoo was said to call souls to heaven; a distressing omen presaging Goro’s unsuccessful raid.
5. Moon over Gojo Bridge
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that an attack on the camp of Shogun Minamoto no Yoshitsune should have failed, particularly given the fantastical powers he has been attributed.
In Moon over Gojo Bridge, a teenage Yoshitsune defeats a fearsome opponent through his unrivalled skills in combat, then leaps effortlessly over the bridge to safety. The diminutive moon provides a sense of scale as he clears the mountops into the very sky. You can see where modern martial arts movies get their ideas!
6. Princess Kaguya
In the classic folktale, a bamboocutter discovers a baby girl in a stalk of bamboo, whom he raises as his own daughter. She grows to be a spectacular beauty, attracting the attentions the Emperor of Japan. He quickly falls for her charms, but she turns him down, claiming that she cannot marry him as she is not of this world.
Which world could produce such a superlative creature? A hint can be found in the story’s inclusion in this particular woodcut collection. At the end of the tale, Kaguya’s celestial relations descend to earth to bring her back to the moon where they came from.
In Yoshitoshi’s print the bamboocutter is on his knees pleading for her to stay, while a tearful Princess Kaguya must take her leave of her beloved father. For an animated modern retelling of the fable, you can enjoy The Tale of Princess Kaguya from Studio Ghibli.
7. Spirit of the Plum Tree
Another ethereal being appears under the light of the moon, although this time originating much closer to the ground. She is said to have appeared to the Chinese poet Zhao Shixiong by emerging from a plum tree in a dream, inspiring some of his greatest works.
Yoshitoshi faithfully recreates this Tang dynasty tale through her distinctly Chinese clothing, and even the detail of the double-chin, a symbol of beauty at the time. The full shimmering moon creates a dream-like atmosphere, where spirits abound.
8. A Poem by Fukami Jikyu
The titular poet’s beautifully scripted poem on the inset reads mei getsu ya, kite miyo kasha no hitai giwa. Surely an ode to the beautiful moon? Not quite. Actually he is essentially saying: full moon, come to admire me on the stage!
Portraying the self-important Fukami Jikyu puffing out his richly decorated kimono like a peacock, Yoshitoshi is making fun of a certain kind of pompous townsperson that people would have recognized from the streets of feudal Edo.
Having trouble picturing the streets of feudal Edo? Let these woodblock print masters help:
9. Actor and Cherry Tree
17th century actor Mizuki Tatsunosuke is similarly moved to poetry by the night view, although this time it is actually the moon that inspires him, rather than his own beauty!
Tatsunosuke’s poem reads: Cherry trees blossom by the Sumida river, boats fade from view in the gathering dusk, at Sekiya as I view the moon (translation from John Stevenson, Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, 2001).
The vivid colors and feminine style of Tatsunosuke’s kimono enabled the viewer to identify him as an onnagata, an actor specializing in the female roles within the all-male casts of kabuki theater. That Yoshitoshi chose to feature him 150 years after his death is testament to this actor’s enduring reputation.
10. The Moon at Shizugatake
In one of the decisive battles in his campaign to unite Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, rushed to the defence of the fortress of Shizugatake back in 1583
The fortress had been held by one of Hideyoshi’s generals, but was subjected to a surprise attack. Hideyoshi had to march his army through the night to reach the battlefield in time. Perhaps that is why is he allows himself to briefly take a seat while blowing the conch to signal the day of the final offensive, as the moon sinks down below the horizon.
Which is your favorite Yoshitoshi print? Let us know in the comments below!