Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo
Edited by Melanie Trede & Lorenz Bichler
I have to confess something. I’m going into this review with a serious bias. I want to be honest about that. On the other hand, a book review is someone’s opinion about a book so… I guess it’s not really my job to be unbiased, is it?
As everyone who reads JapanThis! knows, I love Edo. I love the good parts of it. I’m fascinated by the bad parts of it. However, most of all, I’m in love with the mystery of it – very little of the shōgun’s capital actually still remains. Long gone is the shōgunate’s prohibition against buildings over 2 stories high[i]. Long gone are the palatial mansions of the daimyō. Long gone is the sprawling castle of the shōguns. Long gone are the samurai, the geisha, the merchants, the row houses, the canals, the rivers, and the moats. Modern Tōkyō is an urban jungle that grew out of the world’s preeminent, pre-industrial metropolis. And in many ways, they really are 2 different cities.
It can be said that Edo died 3 deaths: once in the Meiji Period when the city got a slight western makeover, again in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake which brought the city to her knees, and finally in the 1945 firebombing raids[ii]. I’ve always said, there’s a little Edo alive in Tōkyō, you just have to know where to look for it – though usually you have to look really hard.
One of the greatest records we have of Edo is a collection of 浮世絵 ukiyo-e woodblock prints of daily life (literally “pictures of the floating world[iii]”) by歌川広重Utagawa Hiroshige called the 名所江戸百景 Meisho Edo Hyakkei 100 Famous Views of Edo[iv]. While literary and historical texts definitely give us a lot of information about the city, ukiyo-e prints speak volumes about the neighborhoods of the city and communicate profound details about how the average Edoite viewed the city that they lived in. Hiroshige used the popular ukiyo-e style to document the capital and its vibrancy, its place in nature, and its relationship with humanity. Almost all of the views of Edo he depicted no longer exist. Sure, the geographical locations are still there. But the 景色 keshiki scenery is gone.
In my articles on JapanThis!, I do my best to bring the city of Edo back to life. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to track down a photo of an area. Sometimes I get super lucky because there’s a beautiful print by Utagawa Hiroshige.
One final note about Hiroshige and his perspective on the city: he lived from 1797-1858. This makes him a contemporary of 葛飾北斎 Katsushika Hokusai[v] (1760ish-1849). ペリー君 Perī-kun[vi] Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Japan in July 1853 and demanded the Tokugawa Shōgunate open up the country. To the best of my knowledge – I’m no expert – this didn’t influence Hiroshige’s art. But it puts his life into an interesting perspective if you look at the timeline of Japanese History. He died 10 years before the 明治維新 Meiji Ishin Meiji Coup that saw the fall of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. As a result, Hiroshige is considered one last great masters of the pure ukiyo-e tradition of the Edo Period[vii]. The style didn’t die overnight, but it changed and evolved. The prints of Hiroshige had a particularly unexpected impact on European artists who, despite not understanding what they were looking at, were struck by the beauty of his art and Japanese art[viii] in general. It should be noted that Vincent van Gogh[ix] even copied some of Hiroshige’s originals before he decided that Impressionism[x] is where all the cool kids hung out[xi]. He sucked at it, but he did manage to broaden his own artistic “vocabulary” and turn on other people in Europe to some aspects of the visual esthetic of the Edo Period.
What I expected
What I got
|A beautiful compilation of one of the most important collections of ukiyo-e dedicated entirely to the city of Edo.||A beautiful compilation of one of the most important collections of ukiyo-e dedicated entirely to the city of Edo with extremely well written descriptions of each print and a fabulous introduction to the artist and the series.|
Type of Book
|An art history book||An art history book that is itself a lovingly crafted work of art.|
|Didn’t even give it a thought. I just wanted the pictures.||Extremely readable. The only problem is I keep getting distracted by the gorgeous prints.|
|It’s an art book, not sure if bias was an issue other than I hoped the editors were fans of Hiroshige.||It’s an art book and turns out the editors are fans of Hiroshige who are totally biased towards Hiroshige. Just as it should be.|
|Fans of traditional Japanese art, particularly those fascinated by the Edo Period and ukiyo-e.||Fans of art. This book is really accessible. Even if you don’t know anything about the Edo Period, this book is simply delightful to peruse. It’s not just for history nerds. Anyone can fall in love with this book.|
A Solid Five Stars
When I set up my somewhat standardized book review system, I told everyone that I’d never give a book a 5 star rating out of principal. There’s no perfect book. But when I made this system I was thinking about academic history books, not art books. I set a standard that doesn’t really deal with this kind of book.
The prints are reproduced beautifully. This isn’t a book you read and then throw on the bookshelf. This is a book you come back to every day[xii]. This is a book that you leave on the coffee table forever. This is a book that you will literally drool over certain pages taking in Hiroshige’s unconventional use of perspective, his unique guile in painting aspects of the yamanote that got him past the shōgunate censors, and his – I believe – profound affection for his hometown.
This book is wrapped in a wooden cover that protects the contents. It’s sturdy and heavy. The binding itself commands a sense of respect for the contents. The entire viewing experience is very Japanese. You will instinctively find yourself revering the physicality of the book and this enhances the viewing experience.
The book begins with a few chapters about Hiroshige, ukiyo-e, the nature of the genre, and a little bit of history. All of this is accompanied by details of various prints. The text is good and solid and I don’t want to take anything away from that, but the authors/editors chose to focus on the visual element and let Hiroshige’s prints speak for themselves. As a result, you may find yourself distracted from the text and drawn to the pictures. And I think that’s OK. This is an art book, not a history book. The text, which is rock solid in my opinion, is there to answer your questions about the subject – should you have questions. This edition clearly focuses on the eye candy. The authors stay back in the shadows and only speak when you want them to.
This is an art book through and through. I love it. I cherish it. It’s big enough to hug.
If you’re interested, here’s an unboxing video made by some dude on the internet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jjj9l9S2KuE
[i] Not counting the watch towers, etc…
[ii] Which also brought the city to her knees, but this time it wasn’t an act of nature.
[iii] “The floating world” just means “transient moments” or “passing moments.” Today we have photography which can literally capture a moment in time that will never repeat, previous to photography if you wanted a “snapshot” of life, you had to paint it. Ukiyo-e was often about that “snapshot,” capturing a “fleeting moment.”
[iv] Ironically, the series proved so popular that Hiroshige actually made 119 prints, but 119 Famous Views of Edo doesn’t roll off the tongue, I suppose.
[v] Yes, that Hokusai – the guy who did the boring painting of a big ass wave in Kanagawa and also invented tentacle porn.
[vi] Yes, that is the official Japanese rendering of his name. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
[vii] Sure, people continued making ukiyo-e prints in the Meiji Period. It wasn’t like New Year’s Day 1868, everything changed completely lol. But many Japanese art historians, especially those who specialize in ukiyo-e think there is a drastic drop in quality after Hiroshige’s death. That said, I’ve seen some great Meiji Era prints. The style changed, that’s all. Also, ukiyo-e has continued to influence Japanese artists to this very day when they want to emphasize a connection to their “Japaneseness.”
[viii] Or in the parlance of their time, “Oriental Art” – a term that has for some reason has gained a racist connotation for the past 15-20 years or so. I don’t use that term, but never really understood how it got the excess baggage. At any rate, the term Oriental is passé. I guess it was seen as lacking nuance between various Asian cultures – very much the way Van Gogh lacked any nuance in pretty much all of his crap art.
[ix] Who was pretty much a hack anyways, let’s be honest.
[x] Impression lolololol.
[xi] Impressionism… god, if there’s any other overrated genre, I’d like to know. Oh yeah. There is. 80’s hair metal!
[xii] Well, you come back to it every day if you’re obsessed with Edo and write a blog about the history of city. Or if you’re an art nerd. Or if you’re both.