Extending the pop-culture foray of its manga and tin toys shows last year, the Japan Society focuses currently on a single Nineteenth Century designer woodblock prints. Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) depicted—in deep colors and stylized realism—warriors, heroes and monsters. They are the forbears to today's action manga, anime and games and, for that matter, inspiration for tattoos. In conjunction with the show, Hiroki Otsuka, a mangaka (comic-book illustrator) is in residence to produce a complete manga, and will judge a manga competition.


Kuniyoshi may have drawn as many as 10,000 print designs of a variety of types, including such conventional categories as beautiful women and kabuki actors. These prints, mass-produced and sold for about the price of a bowl of noodles (a standard lunch), were collectibles that might be compared with American rock posters of the 1960s in their visual liveliness and their popularity with the public. The Japanese print production system consisted of the artist making a drawing, someone else transferring it to a block of wood and carving the relief, someone else printing it in multiple colors, and a publisher orchestrating the whole process and marketing the print. The prints, so cheap they were throwaways, were discovered in the West when they were used to wrap export ceramics, like we today might wrap dishes in newspaper for a move. The compositions, often consisting of groups of figures wearing elaborately patterned clothing seen in action against empty space, thrilled European painters and were widely influential, inspiring photographic view framing as well.

Kuniyoshi is less well known than his print-artist peers Hokusai or Hiroshige, but he's not the B team; he was a major figure in his time and the work is dazzling. The show opens with monsters and ghost stories—the giant earth spider, skeletons and vengeful spirits—in action scenes that could haunt your dreams. It segues immediately into warrior heroes, including a novel Chinese female wielding big swords. All are presented with such sweeping diagonals, intense coloring and disparities of scale that they really live on the page—even though the prints are restricted in size by the modest dimensions of the blocks of cherry wood that served as printing plates. Kuniyoshi fought the restriction by designing triptychs that gave him more room to set the scene, and by creating a central subject (a boat, for example) that stretches across multiple sheets to get more impact from larger scale. Still, the prints are small and whether hung on the wall or bound in an album, they offer an intimate viewing experience.

Some unusual themes are represented, such as his series of 36 fashionable restaurants in Edo (today's Tokyo). When the repressive government banned certain imagery, such as geisha, he evaded the restriction by depicting women of other types—history figures and townswomen engaged in ordinary activities. A similar subterfuge was what are called his "crazy pictures": animals engaged in human activities, such as sparrows wearing kimono disporting in a brothel scene or a cat impersonating a kabuki actor.

Organized by the British Museum, the show is drawn from the collection of nearly 2,000 prints amassed by Arthur R. Miller, a Harvard and NYU law professor and Emmy Award-winning legal editor for PBS. He professes no real knowledge of Japanese history or aesthetics, just fascination with what he sees. Looking at Ninja-like figures scaling a wall or an enormous skeleton looming over a young hero, viewers may likewise get hooked.


GRAPHIC HEROS, MAGIC MONSTERS IS ON VIEW THROUGH JUNE 13. THE JAPAN SOCIETY IS LOCATED AT 333 EAST 47 STREET, NEW YORK.

UTAGAWA KUNIYOSHI, OCTOPUS GAMES, 1840–1842. AMERICAN FRIENDS OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM (THE ARTUR R MILLER COLLECTION. PHOTO © TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM.