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Floating World Woodblock Print Designer: Utagawa Kuniyoshi

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Kōkwa 1-nen, 7-gatsu 6-nichi.

My dear friend,

Ogenki desuka? Please accept my most sincere apologies for neglecting to write back sooner; as you know, I'm currently engaged in collaboration with Hiroshige-san and Kunisada-san for the Tōkaidō Gojusan Tsugi Hodogaya prints series. I must confess the project has proven to be more involved than I had expected: even though there is one main subject matter, integrating three different styles (or shall I say two, since Kunisada-san seems to have an inclination to copying my successful style as of lately ...) to produce a harmonious series requires a considerable amount of mutual understanding among the three of us. Personally, I prefer working on my own, but doing collaborations from time to time is quite the experience. I believe I speak for the three of us when I say so.

Besides, the public likes it because it is an opportunity to acquire prints from a collection produced by the three leading print-designers. The publishers, they love it; the shrewd men are enthusiastic about any enterprise that will undoubtedly be profitable. But who am I to say such things? You know very well that I am a practical and down-to-earth man. I have myself turned out pot-boilers now and then (mostly in my early days of struggle to climb up the ladder of this profession) in which I felt no real interest; the Western ideal of artistic integrity is merely that here: an ideal. Truly, this is more like a business than an artistic endeavor, what with mass-production of prints designed with the aim to please the tastes and demands of the people of Edo, and the clearly defined assembly-line principles based in the co-operation of four different figures: the publisher, the woodcutter, the printer and the designer, which makes this huge task possible. But among the four component factors, it is the designer that bears the title of artist and is recognized as the creator of the print, because it is him who provides the intellectual, creative, and basic aesthetic elements for the creation of a print.

Earlier today, whilst I watched over my daughter Achō copying a print (yes, that's how ukiyo-e is learned, by example) alongside my other pupils in my studio, I contemplated the irony of the consequences the promulgation of several edicts courtesy of the Tokugawa bakufu has brought upon me. The Tempō Reform of two years ago, with its suppression of subjects connected to kabuki and the Yoshiwara, sowed the grounds for the success of my musha-e prints, yet I found myself in trouble with the authorities the summer of last year. Do you remember my triptych of Raikō and the Earth-Spider depicting the Shogun Ieyoshi? Alas, the brutes confiscated the blocks and destroyed them! They said they could smell the political satire in them. I have no comments on that. Fortunately, I was only severely reprimanded, but I know of fellow designers who have been thrown into jail. It is plainly put, very insulting, if you ask me. Because of this, I find certain satisfaction in telling you that a number of copies, albeit pirated, are still circulating under the counter.

But as an ukiyo-e woodblock print designer, I have no regrets. Alright, I cannot deny it annoyed me greatly that other less original and less talented artists enjoyed wealth and fame while I lived in a wretched hovel. But let us not revive the sad days that are gone; after all, the Tanabata Festival is tomorrow. I should be thankful, and I am, for holding an established reputation that has awarded me with many followers and a faithful audience. I am no longer bounded by the people's preferences; it appears that I have been successful in converting them to my taste for legendary and historical figures after all. I rejoice in being able to indulge my imagination (and obsessions) in a freer way.

That reminds me, I have also sent you a "print" as a gift. I hope you will not accuse me of being cheap (I fear you might think this since the cost of a print is fairly low) because this print is an exceptional one, in that it is a prototype for a print that will be part of a series I plan to undertake in the next years. I will probably title it the Seichū gishin den. Actually, that would be the second series; the first series will consist in prints depicting the rōnin, the Seichū gishin den. I will confide to you my vision. I have a feeling this series will become one of my greatest works. It will be a huge project for sure, following in the steps of the Suikoden. Perhaps I will model the figures after some existing images like I did with the Suikoden (remember I told you I used the wooden images of the five hundred disciples of he Buddha at Itsutsume, Honju, as a reference?); I'm not sure yet, I will consider the possibilities thoroughly when the time comes.

But let us get back to the print in question. Before dwelling deeper into descriptions of the subject matter and the aesthetics and technical details, I would like to explain what the general layout for the prints will be. In the upper right corner, the oblong red cartouche will bear the series title and directly below it, the print title will be placed. The figure occupies the central space and major portion of the sheet, as it is obviously the focus of the print. On the top, above and surrounding the figure, an inscription with some biographical information on the character being illustrated will be added. That's an awful lot of information in one single sheet, wouldn't you say? I like it. It is all deliberate. Tell me: is there a more logical way of ensuring the viewers will clearly understand the subjects? This will help make the subject perfectly clear, and you will find that this is the case with a lot of prints, the juxtaposition of text and image. Moreover, it serves the commemorative ideal of the series well. Lastly, my signature and kiri seal will be on the lower extremes, as well as the censor's seal (I wonder how many censors will have to approve the prints then ...) and publisher's seals to complete the print.

I already mentioned that this print is to be part of a series representing the people who were involved with or helped one or many of the rōnin in their resolve to avenge their lord's death. More specifically, this particular character is my rendering of the Shimabara courtesan Kashiwagi-Daiyū, whom with Ōboshi, one of the forty-seven rōnin, got involved. Since Kashiwagi was a high-ranked courtesan, I have intended to convey this through the elaborate and luxurious sets of kimonos she is wearing. As for the colors, for this design I have indulged myself and used as many as fifteen different colors,

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