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The 250 years of the ukiyo-e woodblock print saw the coming and going not only of a number of clothing fashions, hair styles, and ideal body types, but also several model gender definitions.
First Publication: November 2004
Latest Update: May 2013
In the late eighteenth century, the masculine ideal was tsu, perhaps best rendered in English as suaveness, a cool and detached knowledge of the world and its ways that makes the man emotionally deep, but for that same reason, "above it all," never emotionally explosive.
The ideal man in prints of this period reclines casually, sake on his left side, an adoring courtesan on his right, face impassive as he enjoys a puff or two on a tobacco pipe. Typically, he is soft featured, clean-shaven, hair neatly done up, handsome in a somewhat pretty manner, slender in a loose fitting kimono. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, this image of model male had waned, and another risen in its place.
The nineteenth century ideal was iki, stylish flashiness or self-possessed spiritedness, typified by the otokodate or "five chivalrous commoners," tough-minded townsmen who dressed in fashionable kimono and, despite their status, protected their fellows against outlaw samurai.
This model of the male, dating back to the eighteenth century but gaining ascendancy in the nineteenth, is far closer to Western ideas of "macho" or "masculine" than the tsu ideal.
Male iki meant not being cool, calm and collected, the soft-spoken master of one's domain, but rather hot, excitable and wild, given to impulsive expressions of emotion, regardless of the circumstances or situation.
It meant a tough, even stubborn fearlessness, a disregard for social convention or status, an unwillingness to compromise or sacrifice one's own personal style for social conformity.
We see this ideal developing in the work of Kuniyoshi, both in the warrior prints and the kabuki work, but without question the artist who took the nineteenth century masculine ideal to its most extreme was the Meiji master Kunichika.
Could there be another artist who delights so much in depicting the stern-faced, tattooed tough guy, chewing on a toothpick with one hand while reaching for his sword with the other? The brazen thief at night, a kerchief hiding most of his face but the wily eyes, staring out from the shadows?
If the basis of Kuniyoshi's work was action, the foundation of Kunichika's is attitude. Of course, part of Kunichika's material was given to him by the theater of his time, exemplified by plays on thieves (Shiranami-mono), but the zeal with which Kunichika brought these hardened men to life is quite unique in ukiyo-e.
Over and again from the surface of his prints, these toughs glare out at the viewer, naked to the waist but for the blue and red tattoos covering their skin, as evidence of their ability to withstand pain.
If one picks at his ear, removes a flea or wipes the sweat from his neck, he is to be forgiven these real world peccadillos, which rather than shattering his poise only serve to enhance his connection to the bases of ordinary life. Smiles are most certainly not permitted, however, grimace and glare the modus operandi.
It has been suggested that the rise of interest in the violent worlds of the medieval warrior, street tough and thief in the late Tokugawa Period was emblematic of the desire for destruction of the current social system, the tearing down of all order and social norms in order that something new could be built in its place.
But Kunichika did not give up his attachment to the haggard hard guy until well into the Meiji Period, and even his late kabuki work has touches of this masculine ideal. The taste is certainly not one for everyone, and though not something I would personally wish to collect, I cannot help looking at Kunichika's portraits of overwrought masculinity with a smile.
For, intentional or not, there is something vaguely parodic and appealing about these images of "manliness" taken to the brink of intensity, as though the figures were about to collapse in on themselves under the weight of their own swelled chests and down turned mouths.
Others have taken these images far more to heart, and images by Kunichika, along with those by Kuniyoshi, remain the top choices for tattoos in the Japanese underworld even today.
Author: Dan McKee
Edited by Dieter Wanczura
888 sold object(s) by Kunichika Toyohara 1835-1900 in our Art Archive
5 signature(s) by Kunichika Toyohara in our Signature Database
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