Art on Tuesday: Flower Viewing

spring landscape with mount fuji by hokusai 36 views of mount fuji

This picture is an additional ukiyo-e from Hokusai’s series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’. It is called ‘Tōkaidō Shinagawa Goten’yama no Fuji (東海道品川御殿山の不二)’. Mount Fuji seen from the Gotenyama hill in Shinagawa.

You see a scene in springtime. The trees with flowers in bloom. People are celebrating ‘hanami’ 花見, which means flower viewing. They are having a picnic on the hill or take a walk in the beautiful countryside. It is a tradition until today to do ‘hanami’ with family and friends or colleagues, enjoying the cherry blossoms and sit under a tree, drinking sake, eating and sing songs. Everybody is enjoying the coming of spring.

The Making of Japanese Woodblock Prints

triptych by Utagawa Kunisada process of ukiyo-e makingThis triptych presents seven women working at different workstations showing the process of woodblock printmaking, although women were not typically working as artists or crafters in the Edo era. This picture, a woodblock print itself, was made by Utagawa Kunisada (歌川 国貞 1786–1865) in 1857. On the left we see the painter with different colors and brushes. Wood carvers are working in the back at small tables. The person in the middle is brushing on paper, and the woman on the right is sharpening tools.

The making of Japanese woodblock prints is a complex and laborious process:

  • It is always a collaboration between artists, wood carvers, printers and publishers.
  • First, the painter is drawing the artwork on paper, using black ink with a brush. These outlines are called hanshita-e.
  • Second, a skilled wood carver is laying this drawing on a wooden plate and carves the outlines into the wood. Most commonly cherry wood is used in Japan.
  • The painter produces more different hanshita-e for each color. These are also handed over to a carver, who produces several woodcuts accordingly.
  • These woodcuts are now used as printing-plates one after another. Usually painter and printer discuss the printing order.
  • This woodblock-printing technique was established in the 1760s in Japan. It is called nishiki-e 錦絵. The style was made popular by the artist Suzuki Harunobu (鈴木 春信 1725-1770). It was also used later for the ukiyo-e, which became famous in the Edo era, and are therefore known as Edo-e 江戸絵.

Examples for black and white hanshita-e

hanshita-e by Hokusai Drawings (hanshita-e) for a three-volume picture book from Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849). The drawing was made in 1823-33. (Picture source: https://collections.mfa.org/download/129501)

Utagawa Yoshimune (1817–1880) ca. 1860, from the chapters 4, 5 of Legends of the Dog Warriors. (Picture source: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/78752)

Video
For a better understanding the following YouTube videos show the fascinating process of Japanese woodblock printing:

1. Japanese Woodblock Printmaking
“Local printmaker Jennifer Worsley demonstrates the Japanese woodblock printmaking process, also known as moku hanga, using a mix of traditional and contemporary techniques and tools.”

2. Woodblock Printing Process – A Japan Journey
“Tokyo-based woodblock printmaker David Bull narrates a video showing the step-by-step process of making one of the woodblock prints in the 2019 subscription series ‘A Japan Journey’, designed by Jed Henry.”

Book Review: Breasts and Eggs

Mieko Kawakami is probably most famous for her book ‘Breasts and Eggs’, which has been translated into English and published in 2020. The first part, a novella, was originally published in 2007 by the monthly magazine ‘Bungakugai’ (Literary World) and was awarded with the Akutagawa Award in 2008.

The book with the English title ‘Breasts and Eggs’ is called 夏物語 (natsumonogatari) in Japanese, which means ‘summer story’ or ‘Natsu’s story’ and consists of two parts.

The first part is an edited version of the Japanese book called 乳と卵 (chichi to ran) which means ‘Breasts and Eggs’. The second part is the prolonged story of the narrator Natsume Natsuko. I do not know why the whole book was published with the title of the first part, but I guess ‘breasts and eggs’ sounds catchier than ‘a summer story’. Still, I find it confusing.

The first part is a novella which can be read alone.

Makiko and her daughter Midoriko are visiting Natsuko in Tokyo. Makiko is 39 years old and works as a bar hostess in Ôsaka. Midoriko is a teenager. Natsuko and her sister Makiko grew up in poverty in Ôsaka. Their mother had been working as a hostess too, she died of cancer, so had their grandmother. Natsuko tried to escape the tristesse and poverty by becoming an author in Tokyo. The novella is about a short visit of three days, which grows slowly but unavoidable into a tragedy.

Japanese_Cover_Breast_and_Eggs

The second part tells the story of Natsuko years later. Makiko and Midoriko are playing minor roles in the background.

Natsuke is now a female writer in her late 30s. We read about Natsuko’s mostly lonely life in Tokyo as a successful writer. This part reads more like a journal, where we get to know about her daily routines and meetings with friends and her female editor. When Natsuko hears about an ex-boyfriend’s marriage, she is reflecting her lifestyle as a single woman in Japan. She gets obsessed with the idea of getting pregnant by sperm donation from a direct donor. The atmosphere is oppressive, her reflections are meandering and repetitive.

‘Breasts and Eggs’ deals with feminist themes: female body image, life as a single woman, female sexuality, pregnancy, single motherhood, poverty and poor working conditions in Japan. All of these are exciting and important topics to discuss.

Evaluation

I liked the first part very much. It is originally and skillfully narrated. It is lively, and I read it in one go. I was very much impressed and emotionally touched. It is an exciting stand-alone novella.

The second part, however, is clearly not written as well as the first part. It is different in style and both parts seem to be glued together. Natsuko’s days are boring. She is depressed. Nearly nothing happens. And then, suddenly, she wants to get pregnant. All characters are rather stereotypical, and the story is far too long. At around page 256 I had enough and wanted everything to be over but had to read another 174 pages to finish the novel. I do not say it often, but the second part was rather a disappointment. Mieko Kawakami is strong with novellas like Ms Ice Sandwich and with the original ‘Breasts and Eggs’. The longer version was not as exciting, as I hoped.

Reviewed title
川上未映子. 夏物語. 文藝春秋,2019 (Cover).
Mieko Kawakami. Breasts and Eggs. Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. Europa Editions, 2020 (Cover).

Book Review: Ms Ice Sandwich

Bookcover-Mieko Kawakami- Ms Ice Sandwich“Ms Ice Sandwich’s eyelids are always painted with a thick layer of a kind of electric blue, exactly the same colour as those hard ice lollies that have been sitting in our freezer since last summer.”
Ms. Ice Sandwich is a charming novella.

A boy in fourth grade is the main protagonist, from his perspective the story is being told. His life is not easy. He is raised by his mother, who is absent most of the time. His grandmother is living with them, she is ill and needs home care.

In school, he is being teased by a girl named ‘Tutti’, in his eyes other girls in his class are stupid teenagers with hobbies like silly dancing and who are bullying others. So, he feels somewhat lonely.

His only pleasure are the blue-painted eyes of the unreachable Ms. Ice Sandwich. A woman he sees daily when buying an egg sandwich at her stand in a supermarket.
Things change a little when he gets to know Tutti better, but he is still fascinated by Ms. Ice Sandwich, and he cannot forget her. With Tutti’s help he is figuring out how to address her.
The story is set in contemporary Japan. The overall theme is first love. It teaches you about listening to your heart and taking your chances in the moment.

A novella is usually shorter than a novel, so there are only 92 pages. ‘Ms Ice Sandwich’ is written in a clear written language. The story is narrated in a linear structure. Mieko Kawakami chooses her words in a fresh and interesting way: You read about the inner conflicts of the (nameless) boy. The characters of Tutti and Ms. Ice Sandwich are painted colorfully. The story is bittersweet because of the grandmother’s fate and the sad absence of one parent in both families, the boy’s, and Tutti’s, but everything is mixed with a touch of humor with the ingredients of friendship, forgiveness, and self-confidence.

I liked the writing style of the author, and I am curious about her other books. I had read only one story of Mieko Kawakami, which was published in ‘March was made of Yarn’ before and was impressed by ‘Ms Ice Sandwich’. Surely, I will read ‘Breasts and Eggs’ next, and will write a review on this blog soon.

Reviewed Title:
川上未映子. ミス・アイスサンドイッチ. 2013.
Mieko Kawakami. Ms Ice Sandwich. Translated Louise Heal Kawai. Pushkin Press, 2018 (Cover).

Art on Tuesday: Dawn at Isawa

woodblock print by Hokusai -Dawn at Isawa
This ukiyo-e is from the series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ 富嶽三十六景 by Hokusai (1760-1849).
The series was made in the early 1830s. This is picture No. 43 with the title ‘Dawn at Isawa in the Kai Province’ (甲州伊沢暁—kôshû isawa no akatsuki). The Kai province is located in today’s Yamanashi prefecture of Japan. Here you see typical historical Japanese houses with thatched roofs. On the middle road groups of merchants are transporting commercial goods, some on horses. They are carrying items like rice, food and various products in wooden boxes or in bundles.