浮世絵 Ukiyo-e

浮世絵 ukiyo-e in The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood

RELEASE DATE: 13th December, 2022.

PRE-ORDER: Book One available now at these bookstores:

The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood
by Matthew Crosby

Cover: Jack Kirby Crosby, font and graphic design: Heather Walker

Writing The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood has allowed me to indulge in one of my loves–ukiyo-e… or Japanese woodblock prints. I've collected some of my thoughts on bringing that love to the pages of the books, with the history, style, technique and culture of ukiyo-e.

Drafting a novel on art.

Ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) are the inner voice of my story ‘The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood’. Their chic design and reference to a perhaps fanciful time when aesthetics not money were valued spiked my romantic optimism for life. I've always appreciated visual art and it has often been an inspiration in my theatre acting, writing and directing… working in Japanese theatre over many years led me to the art of The Floating World.

Ukiyo-e prints are often billed as a representation of life in the bustling metropolis of Edo (Tokyo) during the mid to late Tokugawa period, but it presented a version of reality mediated by the explosion of popular culture that flowed from the end of protracted civil war, new systems of administration and technology, and the wider distribution of wealth that occurred when social strata shifted. While Cherrywood is a fantasy detective curse story… car chases, greed and shadowy pasts, I was also interested to explore the way people like to paint themselves.

Insta world

These days life is seen through a digital lens. Slo-mo, high-def, 16-bit, megapixel cameras deliver uncountable versions presenting candied snaps of self within #InsertAdjective [#glamour, #popular, #fantasy] life-stories. It’s a fiction created by us for us, a mass-culture, a global economy, a social experiment started in the noughts. We choose and edit these pictures before posting our world in the manner we wish to project.

Crosby, Google search 'Insta selfie', 2020

The Western View

In the West, since early in the twentieth century, artists considered the relationship of the self to the phenomena of the world. One could discover the self by interpreting the things about–a kind of comparison of me to it. Visual art is a record of the historical changes of this perception. The vision of the Renaissance, Neo-Classicism, Impressionism, Post-Modernism or in Japan, Tosa, Rinpa, Kano could be described as a culture’s selfie, that is, a construction of reality. Using the innovation of oil paint, Renaissance painters visualised mythology or rendered patrons in portraits while many of the commoners of Europe starved. The discovery of buried relics in Italy and Greece drew the aristocratic 18th century Neo-classical eye to cool marble antiquities, their cousins the Romantics created narratives around the ideals and political discourse of 'those fab-halcyon days' while women fought for suffrage.

Romantic Landscape with a Temple by Thomas Doughty

These schools placed the privileged viewer at the centre by using Brunelleshi’s perspective experiment of the early 15th century using a grid and mirror to chart a vanishing line perspective… I think the blob on top is the depicted cloud?

Masters such as Katsushika Hokusai in the early 1800's experimented with both Eastern and western linear perspective, incorporating both systems of representation here… castles float among expansive clouds, Mt Fuji floats above, while common people struggle between cramped lines of reality below.

But glass mirrors were not seen in Japan until the Dutch brought them in the late 18th century, by which time systems of depicting symbol and narrative were very well established. Timon Screech is excellent both on perspective and the introduction of viewing technologies to Japan here and here.

The Japanese View

Earlier art movements were influential. The religious stories of Chinese Buddhism used natural phenomena like trees, rocks, rivers and mountains as symbols of philosophy and devotion. Receiving that influence, the Japanese art movements such as…

… provided a method of representation and arranging the phenomena of the real world in two-dimensional space in a uniquely Japanese way. Western perspective drawings and paintings came to Japan from the early 18th century in Dutch traders, but were largely rejected by local artists who preferred, rather than to adhere slavishly to the vanishing point with its individualistic viewing mode, to create schemes of representation with meaningful placement of symbolic objects. Symbolism in ukiyo-e could be reverential or satirical and often included visual or textual clues from ancient sometimes Chinese stories.

Ken-ichi Sasaki explains the Eastern concept of removing middle-ground, often lost in mist, to give a sense of energy or ki to the landscape. He links ukiyoe to received Chinese traditions of sansui (mountain + water), in which human figures are subsumed by their surrounds. Another wonderful example Amanohashidate here.

The notion of infinity that extends beyond or around physical objects was a driving force in writing about ghosts in Cherrywood and Steve Odin's idea of a 'penumbral shadow' in his paper on yugen 幽玄 (mysterious profundity) was a beginning for me, available here.

Printing… Let's talk about 色相Colour

One of the key plot points in Cherrywood was the innovation of colour printing, around 1765, Meiwa 2. The Tokugawa Shoguns ruled from 1603 to 1856 turning an eastern fishing town into a city of one million residents called Edo (Tokyo). Many of them read books, looked at posters and bought clothing from catalogues. Mid-18th century with the world's largest metropolitan population of 1 million, when the demand for printed books reached 100,000 per-year, when post-print colour-wash posters advertised the latest kabuki theatre or calendars asked readers to guess the short and long months of the year, a more efficient means of bringing colour to printing became necessary.

I was probably five years into drafting Cherrywood before I considered the innovation of colour and its first use attributed to Suzuki Harunobu in 1765, the second year of the Meiwa period became a central plot point for all three books. Victoria Finlay’s book Colour, Travels through the Paintbox shows the far-flung places that the western masters sourced their brilliant colours. The use of colour in Japanese art is no less important to the development of its culture, and when I examined my association with ukiyoe, I realised that the ‘floating world’ that beckoned to me was singing in harmonic tones of pigment. Intrigued by Carmen Blacker's account of child-god mythology, in The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood, colour-print technology is conceived by divine inspiration given to a single artist by wonder children. It’s important when writing a ghost story not to lose sight of the real bit. So while Blacker's examination of the recurrence of the 'divine boy' in shinto texts became my touchstone for colour innovation, I also needed to investigate the actual use of colour in Japan.

Not till the turn of the 19th century did imported mineral pigments such as the Hokusai's favourite Prussian blue seen in ‘The Great Wave of Kanagawa’ or in 'Nihonbashi Bridge' come to be used. Before that time, safflower was used to make red, dayflower blue, amur cork or turmeric yellow, ground shells white and lamp soot made black with rice starch to thicken and apply the mix. Some of these, particularly the safflower and dayflower are extremely sensitive to light, and so many of 18th century prints display colour faded, changed or absent. Discussion of Ozone fading here; Pigment census here. Discussion on pigment here.

Divine children bring my invented carver Toriyama the inspiration for the necessary technology for colour printing - nishikie 錦絵 . However, the truth is always more prosaic. It is widely accepted that a collaborative approach was the norm in woodcut printing, as publisher, designer, carver and colourist created efficiencies in production for a voracious market. It makes sense therefore that though Suzuki Harunobu is credited with the first colour (calendar) print, perhaps the above calendar depicting vinegar tasters, the technology that made this possible was no doubt developed in collaboration over time. Registration of different colour passes on the one sheet was crucial, so a carver such as Toriyama it must have been that invented the kento tabs against which paper sheets abutted, ensuring registration across several colour rubs between different colour blocks; no doubt a colourist, who had worked on after-print washes to then, had shared tea… mm, more likely saké, with some paper suppliers and was offered a sheet of of hosho paper, which was strong enough to withstand repeated rubbings. And the pigments themselves were of no concern, as vegetable pigments had been used in dying fabric patterns, lacquerware making and even the manufacture of lipstick. David Bull's ukiyo-e site offers immense detail on history, process and culture. The publisher, most famously Tsutaya Juzaburo found a merchant to sponsor the enterprise and the artist Harunobu was called to design.

I took this cultural fantasy of Edo for the mis-en-scene of the first part of Book 1 of ‘Cherrywood’ and relieved it with some of the more gritty truths, that the image of refinement, the courtesans of the Yoshiwara were, as Ethel and Stephen Longstreet tell us, in death delivered in a bag to be cremated by monks at the Jokan-ji temple. Many excellent English accounts, for example by Timon Screech on foreign influence, or Nishiyama Matsunosuke on Nihonbashi culture (Chapter 2), or Yabuta Yutaka’s book on the women of Edo provide commentary on the actuality of life in Edo. Understanding both the real life and the way Edoites wished to see themselves was important for my story because ukiyo-e was where I commenced the writing, it became the hinge between the themes of love, belief, greed and power… and the story of infidelity that provokes the curse. Harunobu’s prints of courtesan’s holding kimono closed against the wind…

Hiroshige's exquisite postcard depictions of landscapes that popularised pilgrimage around the great five roads of Honshu…

or Hokusai’s transcendent representations of nature… these were views not just looking through the roof upon court scandals (Tosa), or ancient mythologies on gold-leaf screens (Kano), but in edge-to-edge colour depictions of all facets of rural and metropolitan culture. Ultimately all we have left are the second or third-hand accounts interpreted by writers and these mass-produced prints to understand how central was the appreciation of culture in Edo, and how widespread its influence in projecting the identity Japan wished for itself… Ukiyo-E by Dora Amsden and Woldermar von Seidlitz offers an excellent discussion on this, or else, next time you hear of an exhibition, take some time out to meditate on the fantasy these beautiful ukiyo-e represent. After all, noticing the dissonance between real life and fiction reveals something to us, does it not?



‘“Beni” Maker Aims to Revive Rare Lipstick | The Japan Times’. Accessed 25 April 2022. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2008/06/25/national/beni-maker-aims-to-revive-rare-lipstick/.

Blacker, Carmen. ‘The Divine Boy in Japanese Buddhism’. Asian Folklore Studies 22 (1963): 77–88. https://doi.org/10.2307/1177563.

Bull, David. ‘Woodblock.Com - Opening Page’. David Bull’s world of Woodblock Printmaking. Accessed 3 October 2022. http://www.woodblock.com/.

‘Chapter 2. Edokko: The Townsperson’. In Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868, 41–52. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1997.

Dora Amsden, and Woldermar von Seidlitz. Ukiyo-E. 9781781609491, 2014. https://bibliotecacomplutense.odilotk.es/opac?id=00508613.

Finlay, Victoria. Colour: Travels through the Paintbox. A Sceptre Paperback. London: Sceptre, 2002.

Fitzhugh, Elisabeth West. ‘A Pigment Census of Ukiyo-E Paintings in the Freer Gallery of Art’. Ars Orientalis 11 (1979): 27–38.

Kornicki, Peter F. ‘Nishiki No Ura. An Instance of Censorship and the Structure of a Sharebon’. Monumenta Nipponica 32, no. 2 (1977): 153–88. https://doi.org/10.2307/2384026.

Lippit, Yukio, and Timon Screech. ‘Fantasies and Foreign Contact in the Art History of Japan: Timon Screech in Conversation with Yukio Lippit’. The Art Bulletin 95, no. 2 (2013): 212–18.

Longstreet, Stephen, and Ethel Longstreet. ‘‪Geishas and the Floating World : Inside Tokyo’s Yoshiwara Pleasure District.’, 2020. https://discovery.ebsco.com/c/xppotz/details/j3g4ettwpv?q=Geishas%20and%20the%20floating%20world.

Miller, J. Scott. ‘The Hybrid Narrative of Kyōden’s Sharebon’. Monumenta Nipponica 43, no. 2 (1988): 133–52. https://doi.org/10.2307/2384741.

Odin, Steve. ‘The Penumbral Shadow: A Whiteheadian Perspective on the Yūgen Style of Art and Literature in Japanese Aesthetics’. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 12, no. 1 (1 March 1985): 63–90.

Sasaki, Ken-ichi. ‘‪Perspectives East and West‎’. EBSCO Discovery Service‎. Contemporary Aesthetics,Directory of Open Access Journals, 2013. https://discovery.ebsco.com/c/xppotz/details/epbzddgbhj?q=%28Perspectives%20East%20and%20West%29%20AND%20AU%20Ken-ichi%20Sasaki.

Screech, Timon. The Lens within the Heart: The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan. Reprinted in 2002. Richmond: Curzon, 2002.

———. ‘The Meaning of Western Perspective in Edo Popular Culture’. Archives of Asian Art 47 (1994): 58–69.

Whitmore, Paul M., and Glen R. Cass. ‘The Ozone Fading of Traditional Japanese Colorants’. Studies in Conservation 33, no. 1 (1988): 29–40. https://doi.org/10.2307/1506238.

Yabuta, Yutaka. Rediscovering Women in Tokugawa Japan. Harvard University, Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, 2000.

The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood
by Matthew Crosby

Writing The Curse of the Matsumoto Cherrywood has allowed me to indulge in one of my loves–ukiyo-e… or Japanese woodblock prints. I've collected some of my thoughts on bringing that love to the pages of the books, with the history, style, technique and culture of ukiyo-e.

RELEASE DATE: 16th December, 2022.

PRE-ORDER: Book One available now at these bookstores: