In 1850, the famous and prolific artist Kuniyoshi welcomed an eleven-year-old youth into his studio. This boy, a new student in Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s stable, taking part of his master’s name, eventually became known as Yoshitoshi. During his formative years, young Yoshitoshi dedicated himself to copying the sketches of his master, Kuniyoshi, just as all the pupils in Kuniyoshi’s studio would have done.
Kuniyoshis’ other pupils derided Yoshitoshi for his drab appearance, but Kuniyoshi, the master, treated his new charge with special affection, comparing him to one of his best pupils, Yoshiiku; saying, “Yoshitoshi is awkward, but enthusiastic, and while Yoshiiku’s technique is better, he (Yoshiiku) lacks the same enthusiasm.”
Both Yoshiiku and Yoshitoshi delved into Western drawing techniques and perspective by studying Kuniyoshis’ collection of foreign prints and engravings and, of course, by copying the master’s drawings. The result of this studio upbringing for both artists created an evolution of similar styles; a prerequisite for the seamless collaboration on the landmark series, 28 Murders with Verse, which they created later in their careers.
In the 1860s, many Yoshitoshi prints took on themes of graphic violence and mortality. These dark motifs were a product of the time; when real acts of horror and cruelty were common, and imagined horrible acts were infused throughout the popular culture. It is said that Yoshitoshi practiced sketching actual corpses and human heads when the execution grounds were full during the decline of the Tokugawa shogunate. In addition to the real cruelty of war and executions, kabuki drama, literary fiction, and woodblock prints by Hokusai and Kuniyoshi further contributed to the zeitgeist which would shape the way Yoshitoshi and Yoshiiku saw their world and drew their bloody pictures.
By late 1863, Yoshitoshi began crafting intense and macabre sketches, which became known as Muzan-e, or Bloody Pictures. These muzan-e found their way into battle prints, characterized by a vivid, macabre and gory style. Furthermore, with these depictions of combat, Yoshitoshi sought to exorcise the collective traumas plaguing him and his compatriots during the end of the Tokugawa regime. Despite the grim subject matter of these bloody prints, the public was spellbound and horrified by the shocking imagery of muzan-e.
Between 1866 and 1868, Yoshitoshi, age 27 and Yoshiiku, age 30, having so much training in common, each produced 14 different designs to create a series of muzan-e, exploring the realms of horror and cruelty. The series was titled 28 Famous Murders with Verse, (Eimei nijūhasshūku), or Heroes of the 28 Lunar Lodges With Verse. The series was published by Shinseido, the blocks were carved by Shimizu Ryuzo, and each gruesome image appears with text composed by writers of the day (who are not identified in Keyes). The Colophon page lists all the subjects and the ten writers who contributed to the narratives for the prints. While some of these haunting prints drew inspiration from imaginative fiction and drama, most depicted historical or even contemporary acts of horror which eventually made their way to the stage. This collection of 28 ukiyo-e woodblock prints both shocked and enthralled the citizens of Edo, setting the pace and influencing later interpretations of muzan-e1.
- For further reading on this subject, please see the foreword by our old friend John Stevenson in Van Den Ing & Schaap, Beauty & Violence, Japanese prints by Yoshitoshi 1839-1892, Society for Japanese Arts, 1992.