Art Review

MFA show celebrates 19th-century Japanese print masters

Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s “The Former Emperor From Sanuki Sends His Retainers to Rescue Tametomo.”
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s “The Former Emperor From Sanuki Sends His Retainers to Rescue Tametomo.”

You’ve heard of Hokusai and Hiroshige, the towering artists of the Floating World. The genre dominated Japanese art from the 17th through 19th centuries, and Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” remains in the pop culture pantheon.

Do you know Kuniyoshi and Kunisada? While Hokusai and Hiroshige designed crisp, chromatic waves and mountains, Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Kunisada (pseudonyms bestowed upon them by their teacher, Utagawa Toyokuni) depicted people. They lit the print market on fire in Tokyo, then known as Edo, for decades in the 1800s.

Monsters, fistfights, resplendent kimonos and tattoos, and the Ryan Goslings of the day fill the walls of “Showdown! Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada” a whopping good exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts.


Pow! Bam! Kerplop! Swoon.

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Curator of Japanese art Sarah E. Thompson frames the show as a competition. It’s an adroit way to compare the artists and a fun marketing hook. Both artists are extraordinary.

Still, I give the bout to Kuniyoshi. Not for technical mastery — Kuniyoshi and Kunisada each had a knack for labyrinthine and ornate patterning and feisty composition. But Kuniyoshi was a better spinner of yarns. He was a not-too-distant grandfather of manga and anime artists — brilliant at adventure tales. We see more of his personality and quirkiness on display.

Kunisada excelled at portraying kabuki actors and lovely women. He was by far the more prolific, making 20,000-35,000 prints over the course of his career, to Kuniyoshi’s hardly puny 10,000.

Floating World prints — commonly referred to in Japanese, as ukiyo-e — were an industry. Artists designed them; artisans carved and printed them; publishers sold them. Good ones are crisp, graphic, and popping with color.


Kunisada, a decade older, made a name for himself first. He had a way with faces, capturing likenesses with a few simple lines. In Edo, kabuki theater was Broadway and Hollywood rolled into one, and fans clamored for portraits of the actors (all men, some in drag). He made fierce, lavish, playful portraits, sometimes impishly conflating stories.

In one triptych, with a title beginning “Plum” followed by a lengthy cast and character list, Kunisada sets actors as figures from different plays in a scene from a legendary martial arts novel. The performers wear luxuriously patterned costumes; the central star sports a lobster tattoo. Cherry blossoms sprinkle the dark air behind them. Their faces are riveting: stern, determined and . . . cross-eyed. In kabuki, crossed eyes convey intensity.

He peppered his theatrical prints with details theatergoers would recognize, and his compositions could be packed and precipitous. One vertical triptych depicts a valiant swordfight between women (portrayed by men) on an impossibly steep stairway in an 1841 production of a fabled revenge tale at the Ichimura Theater. They look as if they may pitch off the stairs and into the audience’s lap.

Kunisada was already sitting pretty when newcomer Kuniyoshi had a breakout hit with warrior prints. He didn’t invent the genre, which riffed on historic and literary heroes, but he parlayed it to bestseller status.

The series “Eight Hundred Heroes of the Japanese Shuihuzhuan” was among his early successes. The number is tongue-in-cheek, exaggerated for boasting purposes; this series followed his first smash, feting merely 108 Chinese brave-hearted men (and the occasional woman).


Among the 800 Japanese warriors, “Hayakawa Ayunosuke,” an intrepid 16th-century he-man, uses a plank to force fish to the surface of a wave. A daunting dragon tattoo coils over his arms and chest. Many of Kuniyoshi’s warriors wear ornate tattoos rivaling any you’d see today; the artist himself had many.

He was also a cat lover, and cats became his trademark. The hero “Nozarashi Gosuke,” from another series, “Men of Ready Money With True Labels Attached, Kuniyoshi Fashion,” spent half his time in a Zen monastery and half as a street knight, pursuing truth and justice in snazzy clothes. Here he wears a kimono emblazoned with skulls. Look more closely, and you’ll note each skull is made of a heap of sleepy kitties.

The ebullient and whimsical cats skew this showdown in Kuniyoshi’s favor, but he also wins points as a renegade artist who twice ran into trouble with the law for (perhaps) needling an overreaching government and befuddled bureaucrats.

“The Earth Spider Generates Monsters at the Mansion of Lord Minamoto Yorimitsu,” capturing a nightmare of a fiendish battle, sparked whispers that the dream demons were citizens disgruntled by new, restrictive laws, and the dreamer was the shogun, asleep at the switch. The print was banned.

“Miraculous Paintings by Ukiyo Matabei” was published just after Commodore Matthew Perry and his warships arrived in the waters off isolationist Japan and fired their cannon, demanding trade. The print shows a painter with his fantastic creations coming to life, and one of them is a Thunder God. It was a runaway bestseller; people took the Thunder God for the Americans sounding their presence and saw the other figures as Japanese officials discombobulated by the intrusion. The artist and his publisher were fined.

Despite much scholarly debate, nobody knows for sure whether Kuniyoshi was indeed making political commentary.

But it’s his knack for sweeping, action-packed scenes that push him over the top. It’s not just his gargantuan monsters — a skeleton, a fish, a cat — but the urgent shift and flow of his compositions. In “The Former Emperor from Sanuki Sends His Retainers to Rescue Tametomo,” one ferocious humdinger of a fish breaches, baring its spiny little teeth, and causes a shipwreck. The waves bubble and heave, tossing tiny people about; the scales on the monster’s side glisten; one startled man rides the fish’s back, clutching a baby.

Forget Hosukai’s great wave and your other la-di-da landscapes. If you want to feel the sea spray and an adrenalin rush, see Kuniyoshi in “Showdown!”

SHOWDOWN! Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada

At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Dec. 10.617-267-9300,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.