Tsukioka Yoshitoshi was the last and greatest genius of traditional ukiyo-é. Born in the last years of the Tokogawa Shogunate, he lived most of his adult life in the Meiji era of modernisation. Influenced by Western art, he strove against the loss of traditional Japanese values, devoting most of his work to reminding the Japanese who he felt they were, and should be. His innovations in composition and line, his ability to capture a personality or a moment, are unique in ukiyo-é, and rare in the history of art.
Yonejiro was the son of a rich merchant who had bought samurai status. Unwanted by his father's new mistress, he was given at age three to a sonless uncle, an apothecary, who raised him with love. In 1850, he apprenticed to the master printmaker, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who named him Yoshitoshi. At age 14, he published his first signed print, a triptych of the 1185 naval battle of Dan-no-ura. It was 1853, the year Commodore Perry arrived in Edo harbour. The 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa ended Japan's isolation and opened an era of economic, political and cultural upheaval that was the backdrop for Yoshitoshi's career.
No other Yoshitoshi prints appear for some time, possibly because Kuniyoshi was ill for years before his death in 1861. Although life was hard after his master's death, Yoshitoshi continued to work: he is creditted with forty-four prints in 1862. It is after his father's death in 1863, that he is adopted by Tsukioka Sessai, and begins to use that name. His first popular success came in 1865, with the series One Hundred Ghost Stories from Japan and China.
The impact of western trade on the Japanese economy lead to upheaval, including hyper-inflation and recession. On top of this, the 1850s and early 1860s saw recurrent crop failures and famine. The period was riven with uprisings, unrest and civil war, including, in 1868, the Meiji restoration -- the return to power of the Emperor after over 700 years as a figurehead controlled by Shoguns. In 1868, Yoshitoshi witnessed the bloody last stand at Ueno of Tokugawa loyalists, which he depicted in the series One Hundred Warriors in Battle.
As well as kabuki, bijin, and other themes appreciated in the West, ukiyo-é artists produced graphic works of sex, violence and horror. Kuniyoshi was known for gorey prints of battle, death and seppuku, and Yoshitoshi first made his name in this genre. (No examples are on this site, because they are too gross for my taste. Books are available, in English and Japanese, for those interested.) In 1866, he collaborated with Yoshiiku Ochiai on a series called The Sadistic Collection of Blood, and produced his own Series of Death Art. He also did a great deal of work in another, related genre, horror and ghost tales.
There is a tendency in Western criticism, to emphasise this aspect of Yoshitoshi's work, as if it were peculiar to him, and told us something particular about his mind. In fact, violence had a long history as a ukiyo-é genre, and sold extremely well, especially in the late Tokugawa, as it did in the late twentieth century among North American movie-goers. In both cases, one has to wonder about the connection between the social and economic upheavals of the time, the violence and lawlessness that pervaded society, and the popular taste for bloody and violent entertainment. That the Japanese did not shy from including the blood and guts in their depictions only takes on meaning when viewed through eyes accustomed to having the realistic detail sanitised away. If we are put off by the realism of Yoshitoshi's blood and guts, perhaps we should remember that he personally witnessed at least one massacre, as well as several public executions. That he put this experience to use in his art does not make him any different from, say, Leonardo, sketching the wings of dead birds, or sneaking a peak inside a corpse, strictly forbidden at the time by the Church.
As a measure of the strength of this genre of print, Yoshitoshi was a popular success by age twenty: a ranking of leading ukiyo-é artists placed him tenth. By 1869, he was regarded as one of the best. But his revolutionary work was still to come.
The new government butressed itself by emphasising state Shintoism, and unquestioning loyalty to Nation and Emperor. Artists suffered from a difficult economy, the loss of noble patronage and change in values: many were on the edge of starvation. By 1871, Yoshitoshi had fallen into a deep clinical depression, unable to work, plagued by feelings of worthlessness and imminent disaster. This was the first manifestation -- at least the first mentioned in the sources -- of the mental illnesses that recurred throughout his life. He lived in terrible poverty with his mistress, Okoto: they were forced to sell her clothing and possessions, and to burn floor-boards from their house for warmth.
Scholarship on Yoshitoshi also tends to draw a correlation between his violent prints and mental illness(es), to assume that one reflects the other. Indeed, the line of reasoning is often as circular as an enso: the illness explains his prints, the prints illustrate the illness. The fact that his master, Kuniyoshi, spent a career creating equally violent, bloody and sadistic prints, and that others did the same both before and during Yoshitoshi's life, is acknowleged in passing, but it is never suggested that they, too, must have been sadistic or disturbed. Nor has anyone addressed the fact that Yoshitoshi continued to live an emotionally turbulent life even after he had long dropped violence and bloodshed from his art.
Until recently, western clinicians distinguished between situational, or reactive, depression and endogenous depression. The first is a response to environmental or personal stresses, the second appears to have no external trigger. It is a useful distinction, now rarely acknowleged.
Yoshitoshi had good reason to be depressed. Everything he had known, his profession, his art, his culture and society, was in upheaval. He had lost status in a status-oriented society, he was unable to make a living, there was no welfare society to assist him, what money he could acquire was rendered worthless by inflation. He had no family to turn to: Kuniyoshi was dead, his birth father had given him away, and his adoptive father was ill unto death. He was cold to the point of hypothermia, and hungry to the point of starvation. As another madman, R. D. Liang, observed, sometimes going crazy is a sane response to an insane situation.
It is possible, although there is no evidence to support or refute the suggestion, that Yoshitoshi was predisposed to mental disturbance. In the west, we would look at his mother's death, followed by his stepmother and father's rejection, and comment on his later insecurities, especially his volatile relationships with women. This reasoning is as circular as that from his prints. Yoshitoshi suffered from depression, had a volatile life, and suffered a psychotic breakdown just before his death. Therefore he was mentally unstable. The mental instability is proven by the facts that he had a depression, a volatile life, and a psychotic breakdown in his last year. The more banal among us might even trot out the cliché about genius and mental instability.
It seems to me that Yoshitoshi's depression makes perfect sense when viewed as the reaction of a very successful individual suddenly cast into life-threatening poverty. While his relations with women were not admirable from our point of view -- I, at least, don't admire them -- they were not unique in the floating world inhabited by artists, actors, sumo wrestlers, geisha and courtesans. It is now fairly well understood that, once an individual has had one bout of depression, s/he is at elevated risk of further bouts. It seems the brain, having learned a certain reaction to stress, finds it easier to follow the chemical pathways with every successive stressful event. Finally, although most scholars seem to assume that Yoshitoshi's last mental illness was a continuation of his first, consistent psychotic delusions are not generally a part of the depressive pattern, although it can happen in rare and severe cases. Perhaps this is what happened to Yoshitoshi, or perhaps the aneurysm that was to lead to his cerebral hemorrhage was applying pressure to a specific area of his brain, or, perhaps, for that matter, he had been eating too many mushrooms in the miso.
Regardless of Yoshitoshi's mental history, it does not contribute much to understanding his art, and the revolutionary changes he brought to a traditional discipline. For those, it seems to me more fruitful to look at the influences of his master, his society, his context, and the new techniques and ideas that came to Japan from the west. These, combined with his obvious talent, recognised by buyers well before his first breakdown, suffice to explain his innovations. If his mental state has any influence on his art, the only reason we should concern ourselves with it in assessing him as an artist, it could be that the experience of poverty, hunger, fear and depression made him more aware of the human side of his traditional subjects. Although he is not without precursors in his later focus on human emotions and daily life, he is the most interested, insightful and compassionate of ukiyo-é artists, in any age.
It is often said that Yoshitoshi is unique in his sensitivity and respect for the women he portrays, showing them as people, not merely stereotyped bijin. While it seems to me that this respect is also overstated -- he did several series of bijin prints in which the faces and postures are as stereotypical as they come -- it is true that he, alone among the masters, gave many of his female subjects recognisable faces and personalities, and showed an appreciation of the problems and strengths they had to have to have accomplished what they did. Perhaps, for all the upheaval and philandering in his personal life, he also understood the sacrifices women had made for him.
By 1873, Yoshitoshi's depression was receding. Part of the reason may have been recognition and employment: a few patrons began to come to him with commissions. He changed his family name to Taiso, great resurrection, and began to work more regularly. As well, modernisation created a mushrooming newspaper industry, and, in 1875, he found work as an illustrator. This helped financially, although, in 1876, Otoko voluntarily entered a brothel to support him. Despite this devotion, Yoshitoshi took a new mistress, the geisha Oraku, in 1877. She, too, sold clothing and possessions to support him, and hired herself out to a brothel. Nonetheless, a year later, they separated.
Newspapers brought Yoshitoshi a wider public. In 1877, the Satsuma Rebellion -- lead by the samurai who had brought the Emperor to Tokyo -- gripped Japan. Circulations soared, and Yoshitoshi was in demand, although his financial troubles would not be fully resolved until 1882. Security, and remission of his depression, brought his work a more humane tone. The prints he did now focussed on events and emotions in everyday lives.
By 1880, the woodblock industry was in trouble. Most of the old masters had died, and mass reproduction techniques, such as lithography and photography, were cheaper, more modern and fashionable. Almost alone, Yoshitoshi refused to compromise his art to save it. He insisted on the highest standard of production, and turned increasingly to the past for subjects. It is clear from his art that the wholesale westernisation of Japanese manners and morés disturbed him deeply, and he looked to the past for exemplars to counter the modernising impulse. He wanted to preserve Japanese culture against the onslaught of the new, and devoted his career to depicting traditional heros and legends, and promoting the values they embodied.
Western influences were not all rejected. Yoshitoshi was impressed by what he saw in western composition and movement, and adapted it to his work. He moved from traditional, cloudy, vegetable dyes to bright aniline dyes. The fusion of traditional material with new techniques lead to his most vital and popular work, breaking the bounds of ukiyo-é to create unique works of genius.
In 1880, Yoshitoshi met Sakamaki Taiko, a former geisha from the pleasure quarters. The relationship appears to have contributed to his stability, and, in 1884, they married. He was also in a financial position to acquire a substantial house. This did not mean he settled into monogamous bliss -- he continued to have affairs until his final years.
By 1884, Yoshitoshi had more than eighty apprentices. This enabled him to try ambitious projects, like One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, a series showing incidents from Japanese and Chinese history and legend, with the moon as the unifying element. This series was so popular at the time of its release that people would line up on the day a new print was expected to be sure of being able to get a copy. He also published Selected New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts. This series focusses on the living, not on the ghosts and demons. In some prints, the ghosts are not even shown.
While working on the Ghost series, Yoshitoshi developed another bout of mental illness. In 1891, he invited a number of people to an artists' gathering that was entirely his delusion. He was admitted to a mental hospital, but left in the spring of 1892, renting rooms alone. He died there on 9 June, at fifty-three, of cerebral hemorrhage.
Holding back the night
with its growing brilliance
the summer moon
Yoshitoshi's death poem
By his death, Yoshitoshi was in a losing struggle against change, socially and artistically. The Japanese government was determined to catch up to the west in economic and military power. The dismantling of traditional heirarchies and the prosperity brought by trade would, eventually, lead to the modern nation in which a merchant no longer needed to buy status, because he was the new samurai. Yet, the old values that Yoshitoshi defended did persist: Japan would join Germany in teaching the world the dangers inherent in a modern industrial state at the service of a conservative warrior ideology.
Despite Yoshitoshi's innovative genius, ukiyo-é languished after his death. Although his reputation has lately undergone a revival in Japan and the west, it is ironic that the masters most recognised are men like Hiroshige and Hokusai -- great artists, but artists whose work seems dull and stilted beside the passion and creativity of Yoshitoshi.
Below is a personal selection of Yoshitoshi's work. I have kept images large, to allow the viewer to appreciate the fine line work. The selection is not complete -- I am not fond of violence, bijin prints bore me, and most of Yoshitoshi's pre-depression work seems to me stolidly traditional and derivative. A few early items are included to illustrate specific points.
A more complete selection from 100 Moons can be seen at the Stuart Jackson Gallery, or Google Yoshitoshi. To get the ukiyo-é artist, you will have to specify Tsukioka or Taiso. There are few English language sources, but among these, the best, in my opinion, are the John Stevenson books on 100 Moons and the 36 Ghosts series. They are out of print, and very expensive to buy, but may be available through your library, or on interlibrary loan.
Selected works by Yoshitoshi: