Artist: Utagawa Kuniyoshi 歌川国芳 (1797-1861)
Author: Hanagasa Bunkyō 花笠文京 (1785-1860)
Title: Biographies of Extraordinary People of Japan, vol.2
Medium: Monochrome woodblock print; ink on paper
Dimensions: 22.8 x 15.8 x 0.9 cm
Publisher: Yamazaki Seishichi 山崎清七 (Sanseidō 山静堂)
Arthur Tress Collection, Box 34, Item 24
The second volume of a two-volume set, Nihon kijinden in the Tress collection features pictures of extraordinary personalities in Japanese history designed by Utagawa Kuniyoshi and brief biographical entries written by Hanagasa Bunkyō. Kijin (eccentric or extraordinary people) connoted individuals that did not conform to conventions, and did so in a desirable and inspiring way. Individuals representing a wide range of eras, classes, occupations, and personalities in Nihon kijinden were selected for their individual commitments to their values and extraordinary achievements.
The figures illustrated here seem preoccupied with their own business and are depicted against a plain background. Although shown in groups, each figure shows little awareness of others in the same composition. Nevertheless, they are not represented in a rigid manner or in isolated positions. Instead, not only do the figures seem energized but also the compositions incorporating texts and images display great variety and dynamism. In some compositions, the associations among individual figures are clear, for example, three ukiyo-e masters of the time, Kuniyoshi国芳, Kunisada 国貞, and Eisen英泉are illustrated on the final page (fig. 1), while in other groups figures seem unrelated to each other. For example, the Edo courtesan Ōshū 傾城奥州from the Yoshiwara is put into juxtaposition with Taira no Kiyomori 平清盛 (1118-1181), an ambitious and powerful samurai-politician from the late Heian period.
Facial features, costumes, and poses contribute to signifying the dispositions, occupations, and lives of the extraordinary individuals. Empress Kōmyō 光明皇后 (701-760) from the Nara period assisted her husband in dealing with national affairs is shown standing in a splendid kasaya (fig. 2). The garment suggests her contribution to the construction of Buddhist monasteries in Emperor Shōmu’s reign, while the two wooden basins on her side refer to a Buddhist legend that Empress Kōmyō, having made a vow to help bathe the ten thousand without discrimination, washed the back of Ashuku Buddha who appeared to her as a beggar. In the same composition, an elderly figure sits on the floor with one knee up and the other down, holding a book in his hand–this is Bakin馬琴 (1767-1848), a celebrated novelist from the Edo period (fig. 2). Bakin was such a prolific and diligent writer that even after turning blind in very old age, he persisted in completing the last chapters of his epic novel The Chronicles of Eight Dog Heroes of Satomi with the assistance of his daughter-in-law. The identities of these extraordinary personalities are further enhanced by some pictorial elements. For example, a sleepy cat snuggling up to a seated man immersed in an unrolled handscroll signals that this is Kuniyoshi himself, known for his appreciation of cats as well as his popular cat prints (fig. 1).
A leading ukiyo-e designer in the late Edo period, Utagawa Kuniyoshi was well known for his warrior prints and those depicting heroes in combat with monsters. These dramatic and imaginary scenes from Kuniyoshi’s brush thrilled Edo viewers and his prints had great commercial success even under restricted censorship. Kuniyoshi also designed remarkable prints and illustrated books of kabuki actors, beauties, landscapes, erotica, and humor throughout his career. Some of the extraordinary figures included in Nihon kijinden are also seen in his prints. In Nihon kijinden, Kuniyoshi portrayed himself as wearing a lavishly decorated kimono, and his colleague, Kunisada, in a comparatively simple garment.
The Gerhard Pulverer Collection, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C (Vol. 1-2) https://pulverer.si.edu/node/545/title/2
Clark, Timothy. Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection, London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2009.
Ikumi Kaminishi. “Women Who Crossed the Cordon.” In Women, Gender and Art in Asia, c. 1500-1900. Edited by Melia Belli Bose, London and New York: Routledge, 2016.
Iwakiri Yuriko. “The Life and Career of Utagawa Kuniyoshi: An Artist of Unbridled Creativity,” In Kuniyoshi: Japanese Master of Imagined Worlds, Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2013, pp. 9-24.
Iwakiri Yuriko, Nihon kijinden commentary: http://pulverer.si.edu/node/545/title/1 (Accessed November 12, 2019)
Kameya, Patti. “When Eccentricity Is Virtue: Virtuous Deeds in Kinsei kijinden.” Early Modern Japan: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 17 (2009): 7-21.
Zolbrod, Leon M. “Takizawa Bakin, 1767-1848: A Restoration that Failed.” Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 21, no.1/2 (1966): 1-46.
 See Kameya, 7-9.
 See Ikumi Kaminishi 2016, 321-342.
 See Zolbrod 1966, 42.
Posted by Aria Yirou Diao
Oct. 24, 2019