Imagine yourself sitting in a peaceful tatami-room in a Kyoto temple trying to create zen moment. You smell natural wood of the gracefully aging construction and the grass used to weave tatami creates earthy scent as it gets warm with your body heat. You breathe in deep, then take a better look around the sliding doors framing the room…

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Yamaguchi Akira / Sliding doors for Byodoin Temple, Kyoto

In Buddhism, it is believed reincarnation is a chance(s) given to us so that we can learn necessary lessons in order to be free from greed and live in the paradise permanently. Nothing is forgiven only by saying you’re sorry. People have to earn to be welcomed when entering the paradise. The painting on the sliding doors explains it well. People who’s done good in their lifetime are traveling to paradise where Buddha awaits while some who’s committed sins are… Oh, wait. Some seem to be traveling on … a train?!

This artwork is done by Yamaguchi Akira (he prefers to have his name appear in Japanese order, surname first). Born in Tokyo in 1969, Yamaguchi graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music and completed Master’s degree in 1996. Since his artwork resembles a lot of traditional Japanese paintings, he is often thought to have majored in Japanese art. But as a matter of fact, he studied Western art and oil painting to be more specific. Today he is well known for his paintings heavily influenced by Yamato-e (painting style established during Heian period, 794 – 1185), but done with combination of Japanese and Western methods. And the world he creates is usually a mix of reality and fantasy. Horse-motorbike hybrid parked outside Samurai’s residence, or a painting of war scene but there’s a modern school girl in the battle field together with an armed samurai browsing erotic site. The list goes on.

Yamaguchi is bringing fresh air of modern humor into Japanese art. Then what happens when someone so unconventional and with great imagination does ukiyo-e as in Japanese woodblock print?

Yamaguchi Akira

+++Yamaguchi Akira / New Sights of Tokyo: Tokaido Nihonbashi Revisited +++

This scenery would be very familiar for people who know Nihonbashi bridge in Tokyo. Being said that, there is something that does not exist in reality. An arched bridge crossing over the highway is pure creation of Yamaguchi. When the highway was under construction, a lot of local people protested against it expressing their concern that the highway would ruin the historical atmosphere around Nihonbashi bridge. Yamaguchi has actually spoken about the story and said that he’d painted the arched bridge to get even with the highway. His artwork helps us see the beauty in the world by turning rather plane scenery into something so humorous and lovable.

While the world Yamaguchi creates is so unique and oftentimes surprising, there is something about his technique that lets us see it with ease and accept it as how it is presented be it real or imaginary. He calls this ‘transparent technique’. He believes artist’s technique needs to be effortless to the level it seems like he’s not trying at all. He uses an example of a movie with amazing script and a dull actor. When the actor looks like he is ‘acting’ the part, audience cannot concentrate on following the wonderfully written script. He explains that the audience is drawn to what the artist intended to draw attention to only when there is believability in the work.
Woodblock Print in History and Where It’s Going

While woodcut printing technique common in West uses oil based inks, Japanese woodblock print uses water based ink which enables it to create wide range of vivid colors and transparency to the print. This is one secret of the delicate expression woodblock prints are known for.

During Edo period borrowing library books was one of people’s favorite pastimes (In Edo period, majority of children went to school to learn reading, writing and do basic math regardless of the classes they’re born into). When one picture book became popular for the illustrations, the illustrator named Moronobu Hishikawa decided to have his artwork printed on a single sheet of paper to be sold by itself. First it was printed in all black, but it was still revolutional in a sense that new genre of art that was accessible for the commoners was born. Soon there became a mass production market of woodblock print and people started coloring the single-colored artwork to make it more appealing. But to accelerate the production process, multi-color printing technique was invented. This was how ukiyo-e was born. A man’s idea to fill in people’s need and technological invention put together.

Ukiyo-e is made through hands of three people which hasn’t changed to this day. Painter, someone to curve the wood, then third person to put the color and print on paper. There is also a publisher who acts as producer who decides what goes to printing and distribute the final product.

During Edo period ukiyo-e became so common and is was considered short-lived form of art. It was bought and enjoyed for a while soon to be replaced by new print. People used it as toilet paper and some went to overseas used as wrapper for ceramic exports which was how ukiyo-e was informally introduced to the world. It is funny how it became inspiration for many artists to create impressionism movement in the West.

How to ‘Formally’ Enjoy Ukiyo-e

+++ Toshusai Sharaku / Kabuki Actor Otani Oniji 3 as Yakko Edobei in the Play the Colored Reins of a Loving Wife +++

This visually bold work is one of 28 series of Sharaku’s debut work. While this print is what many people think of when spoken of Ukiyo-e, the artist’s life as ukiyo-e artist lasted less than a year and his personal life remains mostly a mystery.

+++ Kuniyoshi Utagawa / Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre +++

Utagawa pained anatomically correct human bone structure by studying western medicine available during that time. His highly skilled sketching technique was what drew a lot of fans, but he was also popular for his caricature work about government of the time. He continuously used his popularity to point out their incompetency by cynical artworks. Frequent calls from the magistrate’s office or paying high fines did not stop him. Even though the government put him on their blacklist, he continued to use his artwork to give people the voice which attracted even more people to steer the discussion.

+++ Hokusai Katsushika / The Great Wave off Kanagawa +++

One of the most famous ukiyo-e art by a legend. Subtle gradations of blue was done using both traditional indigo blue and ‘Prussian blue’ imported from Europe. Katsushika was well known for his striking blue hue used in his art.

Ukiyo-e was originally created to entertain the commoners. When we think of how ukiyo-e served the people during Edo period, Yamaguchi Akira’s work could definitely rekindle our passion and appreciation for the witty and fun world of ukiyo-e. Because his intention is not to show off his skills or whatever deep knowledges he has for the stories he’s painting, it lets us sit back and dive into the world. My take is that the artwork is good enough to claim its worth of existence if it succeeded in making us feel something. Anything.