Jun 6, 2013

Discover the origin of Japanese manga at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art

There are mainly two kinds of people interested in Japan: those who love traditional culture and those attracted to the pop culture, like anime and manga. 

An art exhibition that may appeal to both of them is currently taking place at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Harajuku. Titled"北斎と暁斎 奇想の漫画 -- Katsushika Hokusai and Kawanabe Kyosai: Fantastic Comics," it features two great masters of ukiyoe (woodblock prints) 葛飾北斎(Katsushika Hokusai 1760-1849) and 河鍋暁斎 (Kawanabe Kyosai 1831-1889). 

This is the upper-half of the brochure of the exhibition, showing all Hokudai's works. Among the people who are making strange facial expressions or doing some funny things, there are two monsters -- a woman with a snake-like long neck and a "kappa" (river child) with reptile-like skin and a turtle shell on the back (did you find it?)

This is the lower half, showing personified frogs and dancing skeletons by Kyosai, who is considered as a successor to Hokusai.

Even if you don't know the name of Hokusai, I guess many of you have probably seen his famous Mount Fuji series at least once.  (photos below) 

浮世絵 (ukiyoe) prints were produced in the Edo Period and the early Meiji Era (17th-20th century),  and made a great impact on the Western art world in the 19th century as well. It is often regarded as fine art, but that is wrong. Ukiyoe are mass-produced prints created for the general public.   

浮世(ukiyo) of ukiyoe literally means "floating word", which indicates "real life,"  and anything became the subjects of ukiye, including beautiful girls in town, popular geisha, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, events, festivals, landscapes,  murder cases, ghosts, animals, and of course sex (this specific genre is called makura-e, or pillow pictures) . 

Hokusai was a very energetic man who tried to draw and paint almost all the things he had seen. He published a collection of sketches of various subjects titled "Hokusai Manga" in 1814. Back then the word "manga" referred to "sketches drawn aimlessly",  not to story-telling comics.  

In this exhibition we can see many illustrations from Hokusai Manga. The photos below are actually the postcards I bought at the museum, but good examples of the exhibition.  

They are marine creatures. The big black one is a whale, and the white one is a shark. The upper right black creature looks like a dolphin but I'm not sure.

This half-naked chubby guy washes his kimono, hangs it to dry, and takies a quick bath in a washtub, etc. Hokusai tried to depict various body motions seen in everyday life.

The same (?)  Mr. Chubby and a woman (I don't know their relationship) are taking a nap, reading a book and a letter. Kind of cute...

The most hilarious work displayed in the exhibition for me was Kyosai's (not Hokusai) "放屁合戦 Hohi Gassen" meaning "Fart Battle"!!!  I bursted into laughter when I saw it. It is vulgar, stupid and funny. I'm sorry I could not find the image of exactly the same work anywhere.

While surfing on the internet, however, I found out the existence of an old scroll with the same subject, titled "Fart Battle Scroll" housed at the library of Waseda University. I don't think it is Kyosai's but If you would like to see what it is like, click here. Hope you'll like it.

The exhibition is until June 26.

Museum information

浮世絵 太田記念美術館 Ukiyoe Ota Kinen Bijutsukan
Ukiyoe Ota Memorial Museum of Art

address: 1-10-10 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
tel: 03-5777-8600
Located at 5-minute walk from JR Harajuku Station, 3-minute walk from Meiji Jingumae on the subway Chiyoda and Fukutoshin Lines.

Open 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. during the exhibition period
Admission: 1,000 yen for adults, 700 yen for high school and university students, free for junior high school students and below. 

For farther information, check the English website here.

Today's useful expression
おとな ふたり おねがいします。 Otona futari onegaishimasu. Two adults, please.


  1. Yukoさん こんにちは!

    How interesting! Thanks for sharing a little about the history of manga ^_^ I have to admit, I don't know all that much about woodblock prints (浮世絵?)except that I saw books dedicated to the topic in a Kinokuniya store, in Singapore. Did I mention that I love bookstores? (hahaha... my family knows that all too well ^^;;)

    Oh and a little about myself..
    私は大学生です。。。。Sorry, I can't say very much in Japanese! Please feel free to correct me if I make any mistakes ^^;;

    1. サマンサさん、こんにちは!
      いつも コメントありがとう! I think you can find more ukiyo-e images on the internet, if you are interested.

      Are you living in Singapore? I've been there only once. Nice place!

      Don't worry, I hope you'll write in Japanese more in the near future. Gambatte!

  2. I really enjoyed my time in Singapore~ *(*´∀`*)☆ But we were visiting for 4 days before heading back home to Australia.

    My family is of Malaysian origin, so we usually go there for holidays and it's close to Singapore~