The two prints above are by two of my favorite artists. Kozue Amano on the left, Utagawa Kunisada on the right. When I see a well-drawn manga, I always remember the position ukiyo-e prints were in the 19th century. Ukiyo-e prints were considered nothing but mass-marketed prints that resulted from technological innovation. The woodblock print replicated “art” at unprecedented speeds just like how our laser printers today can now roll out hundreds of sheets a minute.
Is replication diluting the beauty of an art work ? Walter Benjamin suggests of how the Mona Lisa would lose its “aura” after repeated replication, and it is true supply and demand dictate the “worth” of an art work to some degree, but some works are different. Some works are meant to be replicated and passed around.
A ukiyo-e print is made by an artist drawing a design, then passing it to a carver. The carver carves out the design, and passes it onto a printer, who applies paint and prints the design on paper. That was the process of replication in 19th century Japan, and it just so happens that in 21st century Japan, that tool is the computer. With Photoshop, Illustrator or scanning hand drawn manuscripts, the contemporary Japanese manga artist creates a mold that could be replicated later on. The artist designs, and sends the design to her publisher, who then prints it off en masse. At the end of the day, what matters is not the fact that it was repeatedly printed, but the beauty of the work itself.
The other connection between the two I love is the representation of beauty. Both depict nothing close to realism, but instead project a desire for a certain type of beauty that couldn’t be found in society. In modern manga, with the moe boom (maybe a topic for another time), almost represents a search for purity and innocence. The characters are depicted as more young, and straightforward with the emotions they project. That contrasts starkly with the artificiality and formality present in modern Japanese society.
Ukiyo-e (which means literally “picture of the floating world) represented a similar concept. With the daily formalities of interaction between a man and a woman, voyeuristic shots of women in their daily activities captured a sense of unfiltered purity that wasn’t present in society. Like the moe characters, ukiyo-e depictions grasped for a pure, unfiltered representation. Both manga and ukiyo-e aren’t necessarily realistic depictions, but rather idealized depictions as imagined by the artists.
In regards to the status of these forms of “art”, like ukiyo-e in the 19th century, manga is just treated as a part of pop culture; they are simply a cheap addition to make the house more less boring. Unlike the ukiyo-e prints of Katsushika Hokusai that are framed and protected in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago, manga usually sits on a shelf gathering dust, or is simply recycled at a paper processing plant. Granted, ukiyo-e was once used as wrapping paper, posters and other forms of cheap decoration, but the failure to identify the cultural significance of ukiyo-e at the moment resulted in a lot of Japan’s cultural heritage to only be preserved abroad, and not locally (the largest collection of Japanese prints is currently in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). It wasn’t until a while after the French praised the beauty of the ukiyo-e prints in the 19th century that the Japanese started embracing this art form.
Interestingly enough, emphasis is being placed on preserving this Japanese art form, but it is still widely still considered nothing but a component of pop culture. This is better for you if you are an investor though. This is a perfect opportunity to buy and hold undervalued Japanese manga in mint condition. At $5 a book, it is a great investment. One day, you may end up with a manga collection that has as much artistic depth as the Japanese print collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
With thanks to SH and SWH