“Super Ukiyo-e: Edo Code” is currently underway at a special event space in Nihonbashi,Tokyo. The exhibit utilizes modern technology to present old ukiyo-e prints in the form of riveting digital art. Read below for our report on the exhibition as a window into the culture of Edo.
■An immersive look into Edo’s secrets
The exhibition consists of 20,000 ukiyo-e prints selected from the collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, digitized as high-resolution data. The brainchild of producer Tomohiko Suzuki in collaboration with ASOBISYSTEM, the exhibition is much more than a mere gallery of digital scans. Suzuki explains:
“Conceptually, we began by looking for a way to provide an immersive experience. We wanted visitors to feel as though they had been transported inside the world depicted in ukyio-e prints. The exhibition title contains the phrase ‘Edo Code,’ as we wanted to facilitate a look behind the curtain into the ‘real’ milieu of the Edo Period, a vanished era that is no longer well-known by people nowadays.”
Producer Tomohiko Suzuki
To create this sense of immersion, cutting-edge digital effects were applied to animate and enlarge the ukiyo-e prints, ultimately turning them into engaging, three-dimensional pieces. The various exhibits are described below.
■Morning in Edo: Nihonbashi,－Style－Handsome Men－－－ Mt. Fuji
The elevator doors up to the exhibition space open to reveal the “Nihonbashi” floor. The ukiyo-e has come to life. It’s 7:00AM in Edo, and the morning market is bustling with busy denizens in kimono. By the turn of the 19th century, Edo’s population had already reached 1,200,000. For comparison, Paris’ population was approximately 500,000, while there were still only around 900,000 Londoners. You can see that Edo was quite a flourishing metropolis at the time.
There was a steady stream of merchants, ferrying goods into Nihonbashi from the five highways connecting Edo to all corners of Japan.
Utagawa Hiroshige: Morning Scene at Nihonbashi, from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road.
A cat and dog play in the lower righthand corner of the print. Evidently, this represents an adulterous couple driven to commit a double suicide.
Marine shipping was also vibrant.
Katsushika Hokusai: Nihonbashi in Edo.
Composite image based on Utagawa Hiroshige’s Theater in Saruwakamachi, from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital.
The next room contains “bijin-ga”, prints depicting beautiful women. Women adorned in elaborate garb move across the screen as if they were models in a fashion show. The multiple layers of clothing look quite heavy compared to today’s outfits.
Beauties ① (Everyone is eggshell white!)
Apparently, commoners began wearing makeup in the Edo Period. At the time, having very light, white skin was known as iro-jiro, which itself became a phrase that came to symbolize beauty. As such, women used namari-oshiroi, a white powdered makeup.
Beauties ② (Everyone has white makeup on here, too!)
However, this blend of namari-oshiroi makeup was made from lead, which is now known to be toxic. Numerous would-be fashionistas are said to have suffered brain disease and nerve damage from the substance. In this sense, fashion was literally a matter of life and death for women in Edo.
Beauties ③ (Even so, everyone is white! The price we pay for beauty.)
Composite image made from Utagawa Hiroshige’s Woman Walking in the Snow.
The next room is dedicated to “kabuki” theater. There is a section for posters depicting famous kabuki actors, their gallant portraits a veritable lineup of dreamboats that surely made women of the era swoon.
Incidentally, this section of the exhibition also introduces interesting factoids. For example, handsome young actors today are still called nimai-me (lit. “second sheet”), which is a term that originated with these kabuki posters, as the first poster in each actor series was reserved for the headliner, while the second poster was for the good-looking, young role. Moreover, the exhibit explains that women were barred from performing in kabuki, as they were considered too risque.
Kabuki theater packed with spectators.
Utagawa Hiroshige (Hiroshige I): Theater in Saruwakamachi, from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital.
Handsome men from the Edo Period.
Section introducing how ukiyo-e are made.
On the next floor, Edo Bay spreads out across an entire wall, with Mt. Fuji soaring proud as the central focal point. The image is an exact 60:1 reproduction of Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic “Under the Wave off Kanagawa, from the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series. The impressive wave is a powerful sight to behold at this size, and might be the highlight of the entire exhibition.
The entire wall has become a portal of the world of the “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”.
The wave undulates in real-time!
After gazing at the wave for a while, fish drawn by Utagawa Hiroshige begin to fly out from the violent clutches of the enormous wave. (Quite a collaboration between two masters!) Next, a giant fish (perhaps a whale?) swims by to cover the entire length of the screen.
The expansive ocean scenery provides a nice respite from the city, and is so beautiful you can almost feel the sea breeze.
Fish dash across the screen ? but don’t worry, your clothes are safe from the ocean spray.
It passes with a roar.
■Night in Edo
After a busy day, the sun sets on Edo.
The nighttime city is now populated by strolling throngs of monsters, ghosts, and other spectral yokai ghouls.
The notion of legless, rueful ghosts widely held in contemporary Japan was evidently conceived in the Edo Period. The exhibition explains that ukiyo-e played a role in popularizing this image among the masses.
Folding-screen images illuminated in the dim exhibition space are simultaneously eerie yet beautiful.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre.
Katsushika Hokusai: One Hundred Tales.
The final floor depicts Yoshiwara, Edo’s fabled red-light district. When you approach the beautiful and elegant “Oiran” courtesans, they giggle coquettishly. An installation in the middle of the room depicts a mi-uke transaction, in which a patron buys a prostitute from a brothel so that she can become his wife (or mistress). The image effectively conveys the elegance and opulence of the era.
Oiran courtesan *Rumor has it she will occasionally toss a gold coin to lucky visitors.
Rich patron buys a wife (or mistress).
■What is ukiyo-e…
I interviewed a few other visitors, and asked what they thought of the installation:
“It was like time travelling back to the Edo Period. It was fun.” (Woman in her 20s.)
“I had always only seen the small prints, so this was my first time seeing such enormous ukiyo-e.” (Woman in her 60s.)
Ukiyo-e is a medium that has preserved Edo’s mass culture for modern day viewers. But historically, how did ukiyo-e fit into the lives of people back in the Edo Period?
According to Suzuki, ukiyo-e was analogous to today’s gossip magazines. Ukiyo-e was a form of popular media that was a conduit for information as well as a source of entertainment for Edo’s commoners.
Furthermore, somewhat akin to “The Da Vinci Code”, ukiyo-e also conceal hidden secrets in the form of an “Ukiyo-e Code.”
For example, an ukiyo-e print may ostensibly depict a town festival, yet also reveal that someone’s husband has been sneaking away to Yoshiwara. In this way, many such private narratives have been intertwined for the enjoyment of posterity.
*The image of the dog and cat at the foot of the Nihonbashi Bridge introduced above clearly reveals even the identity of the adulterers to those history buffs privy to the allegorical code.
In conclusion, the exhibition is wonderful use of cutting-edge technology that makes ancient culture accessible to modern audiences, and awakens the viewer to the new potential made possible through digital art.
“Super Ukiyo-e: The Edo Code”
Also check out this exhibition, running at the same time:
“The Mysterious Restaurant of the Food God Tabe Gami”
A workshop is also currently underway.
（Article by： Kenichi Nakamura）
Fields Research Institute (FRI) conducts research in entertainment.
This article was written by a member of FRI, through the original coverage of his/her interests observed in their daily lives.