Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)

holding back the night
with its increasing brilliance
the summer moon
	-- Yoshitoshi's death poem

Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) was the last great master - and one of the great innovative and creative geniuses - of the Japanese woodblock print.

His career spanned two eras - the last years of the old feudal Japan, and the first years of the new modern Japan. Like many Japanese, while interested in the new things from the rest of the world, over time he became increasingly concerned with the loss of many outstanding things from the traditional Japan, among them the traditional woodblock print.

By the end of his career, Yoshitoshi was in an almost single-handed struggle against time and technology. As he worked on in the old manner, Japan was adopting the mass reproduction methods of the West, like photography and lithography. Nonetheless, in a Japan that was turning away from its own past, he almost single-handedly managed to push the traditional Japanese woodblock print to a new level, before it effectively died with him.

He was born in old Edo, in 1839. His father was a rich merchant who had bought his way into samurai status, but Yoshitoshi left home at the age of 3 to live with his uncle, a son-less pharmacist, who was very fond of his nephew.

Yoshitoshi was originally named Owariya Yonejiro, and was given the name Yoshitoshi by his master Kuniyoshi, one of great masters of the Japanese woodblock print, to whom he was apprenticed at 11, in 1850. Although he was not seen as Kuniyoshi's successor in his lifetime, he is now recognized as the chief pupil of Kuniyoshi.

Yoshitoshi's first print appeared in 1853, but nothing else appeared for quite some time, perhaps as a result of the illness of his master Kuniyoshi during his last years. Although his life was hard after Kuniyoshi's death in 1861, he did manage to produce some work, 44 prints of his being known from 1862.

His early work is full of extremely graphic violence and death, perhaps mirroring the lawlessness and violence of the Japan around him, which was simultaneously going through the breakdown of the feudal system imposed by the Tokugawa shoguns, as well as the impact of the West. During this period his fame grew, and by 1869 he was regarded as one of the best woodblock artists in Japan.

Shortly thereafter, he ceased to receive comissions, perhaps because the public were tired of scenes of violence. By 1871, he became severely depressed, and his personal life became one of great turmoil, which was to continue sporadically until his death. He lived in appalling conditions with his devoted mistress, Okoto, who sold off her clothes and possessions to support him. At one point they were reduced to burning the floor-boards from the house for warmth.

His fortunes started to turn by 1873, when his mood improved, and he started to produce more prints. Newspapers sprung up in the modernization drive, and Yoshitoshi was hired to produced prints for one. His financial condition was still precarious, though, and in 1876, his mistress Okoto, in a gesture of devotion which is typically Japanese, but hard for us to understand, sold herself to a brothel to help him.

With the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, in which the old feudal order made one last attempt to stop the new Japan, newspaper circulation soared, and woodblock artists were in demand, with Yoshitoshi most of all. The prints he did gave him public recognition, and the money was a help, but it was not until 1882 that he was secure.

In late 1877, he took up with a new mistress, the geisha Oraku; like Okotu, she sold her clothes and possessions to support him, and when they separated after a year, she too hired herself out to a brothel.

By this point, the woodblock industry was in severe straits. All the great woodblock artists of the early part of the century, Hiroshige, Kunisada, and Kuniyoshi, had all died, and the wooblock print as an art form was dying in the confusion of modernizing Japan. Yoshitoshi insisted on high standards of production, and helped save it temporarily from degeneracy.

In 1880, he met another woman, a former Geisha with two children, Sakamaki Taiko. They were married in 1884, and while he continued to philander, her gentle and patient manner seems to have helped stabilize him.

His last years were among his most productive, with his great series "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon" (1885-1892), and "New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts" (often called simply "Thirty-Six Ghosts") (1889-1892), as well as some masterful triptychs of kabuki theatre actors and scenes.

During this period he also cooperated with his friend, the actor Danjuro, and others, in an attempt to save some of the traditional Japanese arts.

In his last years, his mental problems started to recur. In early 1891 he invited friends to a gathering of artists that turned out to be a delusion. After more symptoms, he was admitted to mental hospital. He eventually left, in May 1892, but did not return home, instead renting rooms.

He died there three weeks later, on June 9, 1892, from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was only 53 years old.

During his life, he produced a large number of triptychs, and many series of prints, many of great merit, including his two best-known, "Thirty-Six Ghosts" and the "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon". Other less-common ones are almost equally good, including "Yoshitoshi's Finest Warriors", "A Collection of Desires", "Eight Elements of Honor" and "Thirty-Two Aspects of Customs and Manners" (the latter all series of bijin).

While demand for his prints continued for a few years, eventually interest in him waned, both in Japan, and around the world. The canonical view in this period was that the generation of Hiroshige was really the last of the great woodblock artists, and more traditional collectors stopped even earlier, at the generation of Utamaro and Toyokuni.

However, starting in the 1970's, interest in him resumed, and reappraisal of his work has shown the quality, originality and genius of the best of it, and the degree to which he succeeded in keeping the best of the old Japanese woodblock print, while pushing the field forward by incorporating both new ideas from the West, as well as his own innovations.

His life is best summed up by John Stevenson:

Yoshitoshi's courage, vision and force of character gave ukiyo-e another generation of life, and illuminated it with one last burst of glory.
	--  "Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Aspects of the Moon", 1992
His reputation has only continued to grow, both in the West, and among younger Japanese, and he is now universally recognized as the greatest Japanese artist of his era.

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