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.


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