Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861), one of the last great artists of the Edo period (1600–1868), is chiefly remembered for his skilfully drawn, action-packed warrior prints and wildly funny comic images. In fact, he was prepared to take on any subject, and he is widely admired for this versatility and his highly original, often eccentric, imagination. He had strong connections with the Kabuki theatres of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), which were the most popular amusement in town, and there was a constant demand for actor prints – pin-ups of the leading actors of the day.
However, it was not always easy to meet this demand. Edo Japan was ruled by a military dictator, the shogun, and the government always kept strict control over popular printed materials. During the Tenpō reforms of 1841–43, even stronger measures were implemented to restrict the daily lives of townspeople in such areas as luxury items, religious practices and leisure activities. In particular, the making of actor prints was forbidden.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Graffiti caricatures of Kabuki actors
Kuniyoshi, as usual, used his ingenuity to get round the regulations: instead of full-colour single portrait prints, he designed a series of sophisticated graffiti called 'Storehouse of Treasured Goods: Scribblings on the Wall'. There is evidence that the ban on actor prints was being relaxed by 1846, so perhaps these 'scribblings' should rather be seen as a light-hearted joke against government repression. In any case, it is a measure of his self-confidence that he deliberately abandoned the finished stylishness of his other prints to produce these energetic and endearing likenesses that look more like his preparatory drawings. The series must have caused a sensation, and these images can even be seen as the precursors of modern manga.
The signatures and seals at the bottom of the 'wall' are reduced to a row of scratched hieroglyphics.
The seven faces are sharply individualised with a few deft brushstrokes and there are small details of dress and accessory to suggest the different characters.
The onnagata female-role specialists can be recognised by their hairstyles decorated with ornate combs and pins.
To make doubly sure that the actors are recognisable, Kuniyoshi adds picture-riddles, quick sketches of objects for which the written characters have the same sound as the actor's name.
A pair of pine needles (matsu), coming down on the right, immediately identifies Onoe Matsusuke III.
Plum blossom (bai) and a shamisen instrument form ‘Baisha’, the pen-name of the actor Nakamura Gennosuke II.
A pagoda (tō) and an elephant (zō) match Azuma Tōzō V.
The arrow (ya) piercing a target (mato) refers to Yamatoya, the house name of Bandō Mitsugorō IV.
A final pun is in the first three syllables of the title, Nitaka, which sound like the Japanese for the question 'Do they look like them?', so the viewers had the double enjoyment of playing these guessing games while looking at these highly sophisticated prints, designed to look like street art.
Written by Mavis Pilbeam
For the Education Department
© Royal Academy of Arts, 2009