Edo Pop! Celebrity culture in old Japan

Scene From the Kabuki Adaptation of Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Play Money 1879, Colour print from woodblocks © Collection of Frank Milner
Scene From the Kabuki Adaptation of Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Play Money, 1879, colour print from woodblocks © Collection of Frank Milner.

Fascination with celebrity is not a modern phenomenon. During the 19th century, Edo in Japan (present-day Tokyo) was the world’s largest city, and it teemed with a million people who enjoyed nothing better than visiting its lively entertainment district, Yoshiwara.

Yoshiwara offered high-class brothels and tea houses to take one’s pleasures in. But those who couldn’t afford such elegantly ritualised thrills would socialise while eating street food bought from yatai (food trucks) and watching street entertainers. A favourite among the many festivals was the summer fireworks display, where rival fire brigades performed acrobatic feats. Naturally, botefuri (street vendors) made the most of the pleasure-seeking crowds, their cheap prints of popular Kabuki theatre actors, of sumo wrestlers, of bijinga (beautiful women), geisha and oiran (the top courtesans) selling like hot rice cakes.

Edo Pop
Kuniteru II Utagawa (Kunitsuna II) (1830 – 1874), The New Shimabara Pleasure Quarter Edo, 1869, colour print from woodblocks © collection of Frank Milner.

While the origins of Japanese woodblock lay in the 8th century, when it was used to reproduce Buddhist texts in black and white, by the 19th century it had flourished into colourful ukiyo-e – pictures of the floating world – a name which referred to the transitory nature and ephemeral pleasures of life. These prints were made in their many thousands; a single sheet could be bought for the price of a bowl of noodles. Courtesans and actors may have had low status in the strict social hierarchy of the Edo Period (1615-1868), but their mass-produced images transformed them into style icons. Indeed, 75% of all Japanese woodblock prints produced at this time were of Kabuki stars.

We are familiar with Hokusai’s iconic ‘Great Wave’, and those finely detailed landscapes or exquisite cherry blossoms; they were a major influence on Modern art in Europe (artists including Rossetti, Whistler, Van Gogh and Monet were collectors). Watts Gallery, however, is putting Edo’s celebrity culture centre stage, with an exhibition populated by a vast cast of characters from the private collection of art historian and writer, Frank Milner.

Edo Pop
Toyohara Kunichika (1835 – 1900) The Ghost of Taira No Tomomori Rising from the Ocean, 1867, colour print from woodblocks © Collection of Frank Milner.

‘I love their modern feel, extremely bright colours, quirky perspectives, as well as their daring and hugely imaginative compositions,’ explains Milner. ‘We sometimes think that Japanese prints are mostly about landscape, but they’re actually about people and I am mostly interested in the cultural and political side of things.’

Reproduced here are a few of the works on display, including The New Shimabara Pleasure Quarter, Edo, a five-panel print which depicts the hedonistic hustle and bustle of Yoshiwara. See the real thing in all its fascinating detail at Edo Pop: Japanese Prints 1825-1895, Watts Gallery Artists’ Village from March 19 until October 6.

Words by Rowena Easton