Illustrated books in the early eighteenth century Torii Kiyonobu is probably the first name that comes to mind for this period, but, as far as book production in the 1700s is concerned, he is responsible for only a few erotic works. In fact, the future is in Kyoto, notably with Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1751, act. 1700-50). Sukenobu makes his debut with one picture book in the year 1700 (or maybe the Shin kanninki of 1699?), then an illustrated novel, in 1708, and his first erotic works from the same year. His career as a designer of picture books actually only begins seriously from 1708, holding top positions in both picture books and erotic works until his death. In Edo, there is Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764, act. 1701-54), making his debut in 1701 with a picture book, then there is an erotic work in 1703, and the illustrations to ten popular novels from 1706 to 1710. However, as he is also quite active in various other fields, as we shall see, he only finds the time to focus on books again in the 1740s.

Nishikawa Sukenobu: Scene in a brothel, double-page plate from the album A Hundred Courtesans of All Ranks, Hyakunin jorō shinasadame, 1723 (British Museum 1979,0305,0.70.2)

Whereas we probably know of no single prints by Sukenobu, a Kyoto man who seems to have studied both the Kanō and the Tosa traditions of painting, from 1700 to 1740 he is absolutely the leading designer of picture books – with more than seventy titles known – as well as the most prolific designer of erotic works in all these years, with a total of 37 titles in this genre. Second in this genre is Masanobu, with five titles in the 1710s, and again second in the 1730s with just two titles – most likely, it would seem, as he is then rather concentrating on designing as well as running his publishing firm – finally ranking first in the 1740s with no less than fifteen titles. Interestingly, there are probably not more than twenty-five to thirty erotic publications in all in the 1730s and 1740s taken together – maybe as a result of the Kyōhō Reforms of XI/1722 (see below)?

Sukenobu is best-known for his numerous picture books portraying women, which were extremely popular all over Japan, possibly foremost in Edo where such elegant representations of women were absolutely unknown. Quite a few of his book-illustrations would, in the 1760s, provide a model for Suzuki Harunobu’s prints, not only copying Sukenobu’s general compositions, but sometimes even making almost literal copies after Sukenobu designs. One could almost say that Harunobu was the one who successfully translated Sukenobu’s line illustrations into ‘Brocade Prints of the Eastern Capital.’ In this way, not only the Kansai ideal of femininity is adopted in Edo, but also the quite common Tosa-tradition compositional scheme.

Sukenobu has a pupil, or at least a close follower, in Hasegawa Mitsunobu (act. 1721-63), who works in nearby Osaka, designing a number of single prints, but foremost prolific in picture books, ranking second in the 1720s with four titles, third in the 1730s with three titles, second in the 1740s with seven titles, and third in the 1750s, with ten titles. Another Sukenobu pupil is Nishikawa Suketada (1706-1762, act. 1752-62), responsible for twelve picture albums, mostly in the 1750s. Sukenobu and Suketada are only known for picture albums, both ehon and enpon, as well as some paintings, but no single prints. Anyway, Sukenobu, Mitsunobu, and Suketada ensure that the Kansai would, for several decades, and even beyond the middle of the eighteenth century, be the centre of picture books. Single prints, on the other hand, remain a pure Edo experiment from its beginning in the late 1690s, though only becoming something like an established commodity from the 1710s.

Whereas the concept of ‘a series of pictures,’ ezukushi, can be seen as Moronobu’s contribution to the format of books, Sukenobu must be credited for his creating the ‘picture book,’ ehon, almost figuring as a prefix to all his book-titles from the 1730s. Ideally, these are comprised of a brief text and a picture as an illustration of the text, actually somewhat similar to the European emblem books that flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.