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.


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.