Fun with ukiyo-e: Parody of Ebisu

Mitate Ebisu, print by Suzuki Harunobu, 1765, Tokyo National Museum.

Ebisu as a young hottie, with a toy fish (note wheels). Polychrome woodblock print, Suzuki Harunobu, 1765.

I came across this Suzuki Harunobu mitate print of Ebisu, which I quite like. (Original at the Tokyo National Museum; I’ve tweaked the color balance and brightness of all the images here.)

Ebisu is the god of fishermen, among other things, and is usually represented as a jolly old man with big earlobes and a fish, generally of unusual size.

Ebisu, print by Bunro, c. 1900.

Ebisu in his usual form, with a bad hat and a big fish. Polychrome woodblock print, Bunro, c. 1900. Now in the British Museum.

Mitate (parody) pictures are based on a famous composition or traditional subject (gods, historical figures, characters from literature or fable); some are relatively straightforwards illustrations, but they frequently change the personages into children, animals, etc. Here’s one of Ebisu reinterpreted as a child (one of a set of the Seven Lucky Gods as children).

One of the most popular types of mitate-e turns the subjects into beautiful young women (possibly a forerunner of the “genderswapped historical male characters as cute moe girls” dude-otaku thing). This print, however, turns Ebisu into a beautiful youth (possibly a forerunner of the “revisionist historical male characters as hot young guys” girl-otaku thing).

(Suzuki Harunobu did unusually many prints of attractive young men, compared to other contemporary artists. Perhaps he personally liked the topic, or perhaps he was merely willing to cater to buyers’ tastes; both men and women purchased images of pretty boys, and some contemporary reports indicate they sold well.)

It is often difficult to identify the sex of children and adolescents in pre-Meiji art, because clothing for sub-adults was not as strongly gendered as it is now (as I have discussed before), and the standard of fashionable beauty called for a sleekly elegant appearance in young people of both sexes. For this young man, as for many pictures of richly-dressed young hotties, the strongest clue to his sex is his hairstyle. Although the best indicator of adolescent maleness in the 17th-18th century, a shaved portion under the forelocks, is hidden under his headscarf, a portion of his topknot with distinctly male wrapping just peeks out at the back.

Mitate Ebisu, print by Suzuki Harunobu, 1765, Museum of Fine Arts.

Another impression of (almost) the same print.

Another version of this print, in the Museum of Fine Arts, is pulled from a different carving of the key block. Many ukiyo-e prints exist in multiple versions from different blocks. On the one hand, woodblocks eventually wore out; the carving wore down, or the wood became brittle and split. The delicate lines of faces were especially prone to wear, and were often repaired by cutting out the section and replacing it with an insert of new wood. On the other hand, if a print or artist was popular, knock-offs could appear, with or without the artist’s consent (if they were contemporary; many were produced years or decades later to feed the collector market).

Because of the elaborate patterning on the young man’s stylish (and appropriately nautically-themed) outfit, the MFA print would have required about 5-7 blocks. The TNM print, with its more coordinated color scheme, would need fewer; aside from this, the color blocks seem almost identical, but the black linework in the key block has some details that differ.

Comparison of facial detains of two prints of Mitate Ebisu.

Left: MFA print. Right: TNM print. Click for larger.

The main differences are in the face and left hand: the MFA print has smaller features, especially the eyes; a fuller lower face; and a rather poorly-drawn hand. The Tokyo print is cleaner and in better condition, which might suggest that it’s newer. However, comparing other prints by the artist leads me to believe that the TNM one is closer to Suzuki’s style (IANA art historian, so take that with a grain of salt); perhaps it was produced from a very careful copy of the original print, or perhaps it was just very well cared for. The MFA one might therefore be a later, somewhat clumsy repair. The other major difference between the two prints is that the cutie in the TNM print has a white fan tucked into his belt, while the MFA print has removed it, leaving only a little bit of the tip visible near the ties of the headscarf, again suggesting that the MFA print is the more recent state of the block.

Interestingly, both prints bungle the layering of the furisode. In the MFA print the layering at the neck and hem is dark grey, over dark pink, over light pink, but where they show along the edge of the sleeve it is light pink, light grey, and then light grey again; in the TNM print the layering at the hem is dark orange, reddish-orange, and light orange, while at the neck it’s dark orange, reddish-orange, and yellow, and at the sleeve it’s reddish-orange, yellow, and pinkish-grey. (In both cases the innermost layer at the neckline is an undergarment, which would not have had furisode sleeves.)

Why the fish is a toy fish, I have no idea. Maybe because he wouldn’t want to get his swank outfit all fishy.


Digital Delivery: Three shoujo one-shots you can’t get anymore

I’m pleased that initiatives like DMP’s Digital Manga Guild exist to help bring over some less-commercial manga. Unfortunately, Japan isn’t completely up on the concept of digital, and so digital manga is subject to some weird restrictions that don’t make any sense, like going out of “print”. Today I’ll look at some digital-only releases which aren’t being released anymore (TL;DR: you didn’t miss much), but are mildly interesting for other reasons.

All of these titles were serialized on the web in Japan, rather than in a traditional magazine (so they’re digital x2). This is still quite unusual in Japanese publishing (cellphone manga is fairly successful financially but it leans heavily towards porn and webcomic-ish stuff), and it’s kind of interesting to see what kind of material publishers think will work in this model. The web-magazine in question, COMIC CYUTT, is described as targeting “females in their teens to twenties”, so they might be considered josei, but DMG has them as shoujo so I’ll stick with that. There once were six manga from this imprint on eManga, but apparently PAPYLESS and/or Media Factory (who jointly run COMIC CYUTT) decided to pull their titles after about a year (not making enough money? change in direction? disagreements with DMP?). (Incidentally, PAPYLESS also runs Renta!, which has all kinds of hilariously trashy cell-phone and digital-first manga in English, including lots of “Teens’ Love”, AKA het josei smut.)

I bought all six before they went offline, so as a peek into Japan’s digital publishing efforts and a memorialization of the fallen, here’s the first three I looked at:

Seiwa High School Bento Club

Seiwa High School Bento Club!, art by Umitamako, Script Advisement by Yuhmi Yamada (Seiwa Gakuen Bentou Bu!, originally serialized in Comic Cyutt. Comic Cyutt edition 2011; Digital Manga Guild edition, 2013)

As a child, our heroine Sayoko was adopted into a large but poor family that never has enough to eat. In order to leave food for her siblings, she eats only the minimum at home, which is a problem for her because she has a ravenous appetite. Furthermore, her high school has a culinary-school track that she was unable to get into, so she’s tortured by the delicious smells coming from the cooking classes. But fortunately she soon has a run-in with the school’s Bento (lunchbox) Club, composed of four of the school’s best cooks, who, in an amazing and totally unexpected plot twist, are all hot guys (one of whom occasionally crossdresses, because shoujo). Impressed by her ability to detect subtle flavors and appreciate the fine nuances of their cuisine even while plowing through immense quantities of food at lightning speed, she becomes sort of an honorary member (even though she can’t cook at all), in charge of taste-testing, critique, and making sure there are no leftovers.

The manga does not have nearly as much food-porn as it initially appears that it will; most of it is split between exploration of the various guys’ family problems, and their rivalry with the equally hot and talented but much jerk-ier men of Ike Culinary School’s Epicurean Club, which is the top pick for the annual national Box Lunch competition that the Bento Club is also competing in. (In the manga’s one best joke, the Ike group dubs their bento “Ike-Ben”, which is a pun on ikemen, “hot guy”.) Of course, although the Epicurean Club’s haute-Japanese cuisine is amazing, our protagonists come to realize that traditional home cooking is the best.

The manga ends very abruptly, just as the bento competition reaches its final round. Either the mangaka was unable to get the story to fit into the space allotted, even with the help of a “script advisor”, or the series was cancelled without the usual grace of a chapter or two to wrap it up. It’s somewhat unsatisfying not to find out whether the Seiwa gang won, although Sayoko does manage to get off the obligatory “making food that ordinary people can appreciate is the most important thing!” speech in the final pages.

The art is decent, but with some issues about faces, especially eyes, and the translation is slightly awkward in spots. There’s not enough focus on the food to make this a satisfying foodie manga, and the other plot elements are a little too generic. Add in the abrupt ending, and I couldn’t recommend it even if you could still get it.

Pandra Restaurant

Pandra Restaurant!, by Riri Sagara (Pandra Restaurant!, originally serialized in Comic Cyutt. Comic Cyutt edition 2010; Digital Manga Guild edition, 2014)

The title is weird: “Pandra” is quite obviously supposed to be “Pandora”. Whoever on the Japanese end romanized it needs a good talking-to and maybe an unabridged English dictionary.

This is an example of one of the stranger fads in Japanese pop culture over the last few years: stories about anthropomorphized random stuff. In this case, kitchen implements. That look like cute guys.

The main character is Manaita (“cutting board”), a plastic cutting board who has been hired at a small restaurant; it’s his first job, so he’s nervous, especially about how he’s going to get along with the knife. Unfortunately for him, knife-guy is bad-tempered, sadistic, and looks down on plastic cutting boards (who he regards as much inferior to wooden cutting boards). The rest of the cast doesn’t get along very well either; frying-pan is constantly bickering with spatula, everyone picks on saucepan because he’s a simple traditional style, and only sponge is capable of keeping the others in line (by threatening not to clean them).

The chapters are divided into episodes so short that it feels like a 4-koma manga even though it’s not. Most of the stories revolve around sitcom personality differences and arguments, and the utensils’ resentment of the stylish bishounen tableware (who need to look good because they interact with the customers), but some do trade on the kitchen-utensil premise, with predictably odd results. There’s almost no BL elements, even though the utensil-pairing setup would seem to be ideal for it, but there is a random episode of crossdressing, because shoujo.

The translation is pretty clunky, to the point where it’s sometimes not clear what’s going on (frying pan is steel and consequently needs to “collect oil” before cooking… is that a reference to frying in more oil because he’s not nonstick? or needing to be seasoned???). The art is decent and the guys are reasonably good-looking if you can get past the hair-wings on a couple of them, but the stories are mostly lightweight, kind of silly, and/or strange. I suspect it worked better in small doses mixed with other things, as it probably was when serialized, rather than all in a lump as it is here. Also, the English logo does not preserve the adorable crossed-fork-and-exclamation-point of the Japanese logo.

Welcome To Nyan Cafe

Welcome to Nyan Cafe!, by Kira Nakamura (Nyan Cafe e Youkoso!, originally serialized in Comic Cyutt. Comic Cyutt edition 2010; Digital Manga Guild edition, 2014)

Welcome to Nyan Cafe! is a 4-koma about four anthropomorphic cats that work in a cat café, although as one of the characters notes it’s really more like a host club, since the female clients see the cats as cute catboys just like the reader does. The protagonist is a young abandoned cat that has been adopted by the café; initially nameless, he’s dubbed Shiro (“white”) by his co-workers (each of which represents a different cat breed).

As a 4-koma, it’s made up of many short stories, most only a few pages long. Some of the stories make use of the anthropomorphic-cat premise (paper bags are the best thing ever!), and many revolve around Shiro’s childish innocence and lack of experience with the world, but most of it is pretty much the same very mild character-interaction sitcom as any moe 4-koma, except instead of “cute girls eating pudding” it’s “cute catboys eating pudding” (or accidentally getting drunk on catnip, as the case may be). There’s some BL tease (mostly in the form of the older cats sexually harassing each other) and some mild fanservice; be warned that the protagonist is even more shotabait than he looks on the cover, so if you don’t want to see the occasional nekkid underage catboy butt you might want to give this one a miss. There’s also a couple of doses of crossdressing, because shoujo.

The art is polished if fairly generic, the catboys are cute, and the translation is decent, but unless you’re really into catboys, 4-koma, or the low-key nothing-happening-ness of this kind of story, you don’t need to stay up at night fretting over missing it. And I never did figure out whether the café’s human owner is supposed to be male or female.

So what can we conclude from this about Japanese web-first manga (or at least Comic Cyutt web-first manga)? These three works seem to favor episodic stories with lots of cute boys and a touch of crossdressing (Comic Cyutt knows its audience), but not all that much substance. I’ve still got the other three eManga releases to work through, and Renta! has a couple more Comic Cyutt titles available on their site, so we’ll see if these generalizations hold up.

Fun with ukiyo-e: significant details

Suzuki Harunobu c. 1765 (later printing), Kotsuzumi o utsu wakashū. Print in LOC.

More shocking than it may at first appear. (Click for larger.)

In pursuit of a very desultory attempt to put together a post on furisode and its gender/status implications in pre-Meiji Japan (don’t hold your breath), I came across this lovely little item which amused me greatly (for reasons that will become apparent), and so I threw together a quick commentary on some points that might not be obvious to the modern observer.

Above: a woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1765, now in the Library of Congress. (Note this is a later printing and possibly a re-carving of the original block, so I wouldn’t put too much faith in the color scheme. The LOC’s scan of the print is a little muddy so I’ve adjusted the color balance and brightness as well. The Met has slightly different, more sloppily printed version that might be pulled from a different block.)

At the barest surface level, the print shows an elegantly dressed young person playing a drum in an equally elegant setting. The player’s delicate features, narrow face, and graceful pose correspond to period conventions of elegantly androgynous beauty. Behind the player is an (elegant) alcove with a vase of flowers and a hanging wall-scroll, still a standard feature of traditional Japanese interior design. The scroll features an image of Hotei, one of the seven lucky gods, with his iconic sack.

Detail of print, showing wall scroll of Hotei

God of you’ll never guess what.

The top layer of the player’s chic and luxurious outfit is a brown jacket with a stylized pattern of birds and gusts of wind (or at least that’s what I think those forked things are, don’t quote me…); it is worn over three layers of kimono (grey with green stripes, red, and grey again) and an under-kimono with a fashionable red collar. (Three-layer kimono is currently regarded as very formal, but at the time it was merely very expensive.) The jacket and the three kimono are all of furisode cut, with exaggeratedly long sleeves; each layer is cut a little narrower at the center front and the inside of the sleeve to allow the inner layers to show. (The innermost kimono has a subtle stripe pattern; the scan isn’t clear enough to tell definitively but I suspect that the pattern was created not on the printing block itself but by embossing the paper afterwards, a decorative touch found on some prints.)

If you are aware of modern kimono etiquette, you would probably identify the subject as a young unmarried woman, which is currently the only class of person entitled to wear furisode. If you are hip to traditional Japanese hairstyles, however, you would be able to spot that this is actually a wakashū, a boy who is no longer a young child but is not yet an adult man. Therefore, as furisode are currently gendered female, you might conclude that this is a portrait of a crossdresser, possibly a kabuki female-role specialist.

But historically, furisode were not categorized as women’s clothing; they were categorized as children’s clothing. Furisode could be worn from infancy, but boys had to give them up at the coming-of-age ceremony, girls at marriage. This young man is entitled to wear furisode on account of his non-adult status, not because of genderbending. Besides being suitable for his age, furisode also allows him to advertise his family’s money and status: furisode was (and is) a form of conspicuous consumption, as the extra length of sleeve was not only completely impractical but also added considerably to the cost of the garment. Three-layer furisode is just rubbing it in.

So what we have so far is a portrait of an attractive and wealthy youth who is perhaps just a bit overdressed for hanging around the house practicing his music lessons. But there are actually other things going on here. Sexy, sexy things.

Under the rules of shudō, the traditional Japanese formulation of male-male erotic relationships, the receptive partner was expected to be within the wakashū age category; once a boy formally became a man he was no longer eligible as an object of desire. Furisode, as incompatible with adult status, emphasizes the player’s boy-hood, and thus his suitability as a potential lover. (Ladies also appreciated pretty young things, but I’m classifying this one as a shudō print because of the elements described below.)

Just to make sure you don’t miss the point, our rich young hottie is surrounded by visual double-entendres. The drum is a sexual innuendo. The lovely flowers in the alcove are chrysanthemums, a long-established reference to anal sex. And the god Hotei’s traditional beneficence to children had by this point become jokingly associated with a taste for beautiful youths.

Detail of print, showing chrysanthemums


So what this print is, in point of fact, is a pinup. This is the 18th century gay Japanese version of Betty Grable’s ass.

Betty Grable WWII pinup

200 years, 5000 miles, same idea.

Like Shakespeare, ukiyo-e is so much more fun when you can spot all the dirty jokes.