The Little People in Japanese Prints

The Little People in Japanese Prints

Most of us are familiar with the large and intricate images of imposing samurai, actors, and beautiful women that are the primary focus of the majority of woodblock prints. Up close the layered complexity of the kimonos, obis, etc., can be rendered in great detail. The amazing intricate patterns on the kimonos of Kunichika's characters are good examples of this (example below).

Kunichika fireworks print

Kunichika - Example of detailed kimono.

The landscape artist has a different challenge when creating an image, how to add the human element to scenes. Many landscape artists left people out of their scenes entirely. Hiroshige, however, was an expert in populating his landscapes with all sizes and types of people. By adding these people to the landscape he made the overall print more relatable and real - even if they were less than 1/4 inch high (6.35 mm).

Some elements that help visually differentiate people in the prints are: hats (kasa), swords, staffs, carts, packages, backpacks, headscarfs, hair ornaments, umbrellas, pipes, kimonos, hakama, straw coats, or lack of them.

hiroshige little people

Ando Hiroshige - 100 Views of Edo - Suijikai uchi Yatsukoji

19th century, Western critics of Hiroshige's work were quite disturbed by his shorthand indications of people. The simplified facial features and anatomically incorrect arms, legs, hands, and feet were an assault on the Western ideals of a perfectly rendered human figure.

When one looks at Hiroshige's representations of people it is obvious that he abided by the Japanese conventions of depicting man. The Japanese artist is not ignorant of human anatomy. Hiroshige does not go into great detail when representing figures because, if he did, the landscape would become subservient to them. By making the figures generalized, Hiroshige has made them representative of the actions they are performing. Ultimately they become a part of the landscape through; which they move.

Asakusa Kinryûzan no zu

Ando Hiroshige - Asakusa Kinryûzan no zu - Famous Places in the Eastern Capital

The size of these figures is both a tribute to the artist and the block cutter, that had to carve the tiny forms into solid wood. It almost becomes a game in trying to make a recognizable figure in as few short strokes as possible. Each figure becomes a collection of triangles and parallelograms - much like the wooden tangram puzzles of our youth.

An added dimension is the interaction of these figures. They are not standing alone but clustered in groups, going about their day-to-day business. This really imparts an intimacy and immediacy to the scene that provides a stylized snapshot of life in Edo.

Hiroshige's namesake, Hiroshige II continued his masters tradition. In this print by Hiroshige II Fudō Temple at Meguro, we see an example of little people that bring life and interest to a scene.

Hiroshige II - Fudō Temple at Meguro

Hiroshige II - Fudō Temple at Meguro

We see a bustling scene that includes all manner of visitors to the shrine, women in kimonos, porters, samurai, and men cleansing themselves in the water. Imagine the scene without these little figures, there would be no life, nothing to relate to except a plain, static landscape.

Do you have a favorite woodblock print populated with images of little people. If so, let me know.

Happy Collecting!

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