In 1863, the fourteenth Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi (1846-1866), traveled from Edo (modern Tokyo) to Kyoto for an audience with the Japanese Emperor. Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), an Edo-based printmaker, illustrated Iemochi's journey in his print, Kanasugi Bridge at Shibaura.
Kanasugi Bridge at Shibaura is one of a hundred prints included in the Asian Art Museum's exhibition, Yoshitoshi's Strange Tales: Woodblock Prints from Edo to Meiji (May 26 to September 2, 2007). The exhibition's curator, John Stevenson, characterized the artist as a liminal figure, poised between Edo and Meiji sensibilities. The prints included in this exhibit illustrate for Stevenson, "a traditional culture moving at breakneck speed into the modern world."
Yoshitoshi was born in Edo in 1839 to a wealthy merchant who had bought his way into the samurai class. Yoshitoshi apprenticed with the printmaker Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). Due to government censorship, both printmakers often employed ghost stories and folklore as allegories for contemporary events and as a platform for political commentary.
Many of Yoshitoshi's most memorable prints explore the tensions that marked late-nineteenth-century Japanese society. One scholar has described Yoshitoshi's work as "violence made vivid." However, as the artist matured, he developed a gift for capturing tension, or what Henri Cartier-Bresson has called "the decisive moment." During the 1860s and 70s, Yoshitoshi frequently created newspaper illustrations, and his version of Kanasugi Bridge at Shibaura, though included in his Tokaido Highway series, may have began as a newspaper assignment.
Yoshitoshi's audiences would have recognized his Kanasugi Bridge at Shibaura as a reworking of a famous Ando Hiroshige print from 1857 bearing the same title. Yoshitoshi has carefully preserved Hiroshige's composition, almost point-for-point. In Yoshitoshi's print, however, the fisherman is transformed from a bystander (oaring his boat, oblivious to the procession crossing the bridge) to a witness (alert, captivated by the events unfolding before him).
Hiroshige's Kanasugi Bridge and Shibaura depicts a pilgrimage dating to the thirteenth century. Each year, thousands of followers of the Buddhist sage Nichiren made the eight mile trek from Edo to Honmonji to commemorate Nichiren's death. Hiroshige's print seethes with activity, as banners and flags flutter in the wind. Festive reds, yellows, and purples dominate the foreground.
Yoshitoshi's print, in contrast, is markedly static. The mood is decidedly sober. While Hiroshige arranged his banners and poles at rakish angles, creating strong diagonals throughout the print, Yoshitoshi's samurai carry their banners with discipline. The samurai, unlike the pilgrims, walk in neatly ordered rows. The men's uniforms are neat and sharp, their postures tense. Only the horse betrays any liveliness, high-stepping between the columns. The horseman heralds the shogun. Yoshitoshi has reworked Hiroshige's print so that things are not in their right place.
According to tradition, the shogun does not move. Others come to him. For centuries, the daimyo, or lords, traveled to Edo to pay court to the shogun. Twice a year, daimyo from all over Japan crossed the bridge at Shibaura. These processions were said to number into the tens of thousands, all traveling under the daimyo's standard. This time, however, the men belong to the shogun, and they are traveling south. The old order has been torn asunder.
Yoshitoshi's choice to base his image of the shogun's journey on Hiroshige's earlier masterpiece gives the moment a poignancy and a pathos that underscores the event's magnitude. His decision to merge the shogun's journey with Hiroshige's lucid depiction of Edo, Japan displays Yoshitoshi's identification with the shogun's vanishing order. The print, so elegiac and still, memorializes Edo as it was, as it ought to be, as it never will be again.