A closer look at single prints in the 1730s through the 1750s – Perspective prints As for ukie, these seem to be an innovation that we owe to the visionary Okumura Masanobu, generally believed to date from 1739 onwards.[6] This date is based on a design after a theatrical performance in III/1739 of the play Hatsu motoyuitsū Soga (初鬠通曽我), staged at the Ichimura Theatre (KN 2:303), and also the Zoku dankai (続談海) records for the same year 1739 that ‘ukie are being published’ (浮繪出板行事). From then, their numbers increase, and the Annals of Edo in Musashi Province, Bukō nenpyō (武江年表, 1-151) confirm the existence of ukie in its general observations for the Enkyō Period (1744-1748).

These obvious references to the prints, alas, fail to give us an answer to the question why these were then being designed and made. Of course, being Dutch myself, I would like to see them as the Japanese alternative for the optica prints that were then imported into Japan in large numbers by the Dutch at Deshima.[7] But it is only from the 1760s and 1770s that we will see Japanese copies after European optica prints of the Canal Grande in Venice, the Forum Romanum, the Colossus of Rhodos, and many more hand-coloured copper plate prints of famous sites and European townscapes, mass-produced in Paris, London and Augsburg from the 1740s.

Earlier ukie all focus on Japanese scenery, be it a view of enjoying the evening cool at Ryōgokubashi, the interior of some kabuki theatre, a street lined on both sides with shops selling materials, a view of the main street of the Yoshiwara, or temple compounds. Moreover, most, if not all perspective prints, have a title and the names of their designer and publisher in a vertical band in the right hand margin. These would thus be readable for the operator of the ōkarakuri in which these prints would normally be shown at the time, a box-like apparatus equipped with magnifying lenses so people would look through these lenses and thus get something like a three-dimensional view of some cityscape. There is some pictorial evidence attesting to the existence of these ōkarakuri, also called ‘Dutch peeping boxes,’ Oranda ōkarakuri, in books of the period and, in fact, even suggesting that these were already in use at a much earlier date than we assign to ukie, as early as 1730.[8] So what did they show then? Their formats, especially the large ones that measure like 345 – 436 x 470 – 642 mms, seem rather appropriate for vistas to be shown to some audience in such an apparatus than as items that would be bought by private people who would keep them in some box together with their other prints. The smaller ones are of a slightly more modest size, measuring 240 – 278 x 395 – 413 mms, but also that is still pretty large.[2] It is only from the 1760s that perspective prints take the format of the standard ōban, and apparently start catering to a market of well-to-do citizens that may even own a zograscope themselves for viewing these prints, as we can see in a Harunobu print of the late 1760s.

In the first decades since they were first developed in 1739, most such ukie would either represent the interior of one of Edo’s kabuki theaters, or offer us a view of the main street of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter seen through the entrance gate, Ōmonguchi. Their main designers are Okumura Masanobu (12), Tanaka Masunobu (5), Torii Kiyotada (2), Teigetsudō (1), Furuyama Moromasa (4), Nishimura Shigenobu (1), Nishimura Shigenaga (10), Torii Kiyohiro (1), Torii Kiyotada (2), Kōgetsudō (1), and Torii Kiyomitsu (1), for a total of some forty prints, mostly dating from the 1740s. However, their real flowering is from the 1760s and 1770s, when artists such as Utagawa Toyoharu make these his specialty, and later also, for some time, Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825), Kitao Masayoshi (1764-1824, act. 1780–), and Katsukawa Shunrō (1760-1849), the later Hokusai. No, perspective prints were not just some temporary vogue, they would even live on in the Japanese etching or copperplate tradition of the first half of the nineteenth century.

An overview of early Ukie, based on Higuchi and Kishi Fumikazu, Edo no enkinbō. Tokyo: Keisō Shobō, 1994, would give the following:

◊ Anonymous painting: Ichimuraza jōnai no zu (市村座場内之図), after the play Tokiwagi Taiheiki (瑞樹太平記), staged XI/1739 at the Ichimura Theatre (KN 2:306), published anonymously;

◊ Okumura Masanobu: Shibai kyōgen butai kaomise daiukie (芝居狂言舞台顔見世大浮繪), after the play Miyabashira Taiheiki (宮柱太平記), staged XI/1740 at the Nakamura Theatre (KN 2:314), published by Okumuraya Genroku [H52];

◊ Okumura Masanobu: Shin Yoshiwara Ōmonguchi Nakanochō ukie kongen (新吉原大門口中の町浮繪根元), after the situation in between the years 1741 and 1744, published by the Okumuraya;

◊ Okumura Masanobu: Shibai kyōgen ukie kongen (芝居狂言浮繪根元), after the play Futayosooi mitsugi Taiheiki (艤貢太平記), staged XI/1743 at the Nakamura Theatre (KN 2:422), published by Okumuraya Genroku;

◊ Okumura Masanobu: Shibai kyōgen ukie kongen (芝居狂言浮繪根元), after the play Sazareishi suehiro Genji (□末廣源氏), staged I/1744 at the Nakamura Theatre (KN 2:445), published by Okumuraya Genroku (?);

◊ Tanaka Masunobu: Untitled theatre interior, after the play Nanakusa wakayagi Soga (七種□曽我), staged Spring/1744 at the Ichimura Theatre (KN 2:446), published by Izutsuya Sanemon;

◊ Anonymous: Untitled theatre interior, after the play Kachō Taiheiki (花鳥太平記), staged XI/1744 at the Nakamura Theatre (KN 2:448), published by unknown;

◊ Torii Kiyotada: Untitled theatre interior, after a performance of Shibaraku (暫), staged XI/1744 at the xx Theatre (KN 2:000), published by Urokogataya;

◊ Okumura Masanobu: Shin Yoshiwara Ōmonguchi Nakanochō daiukie (新吉原大門口中の町大浮繪), after the situation in between the years 1744 and 1745, published by Okumuraya Genroku;

◊ Tanaka Masunobu, attrib.: Untitled, view of the Ōmonguchi of Shin Yoshiwara, after the situation in between the years 1744 and 1745, published by unknown;

◊ Furuyama Moromasa: Shin Yoshiwara Ōmon yuki no kei no iro (新吉原大門雪景色), after the situation in between the years 1744 and 1748, published by Igaya;

◊ Okumura Masanobu: Shibai kyōgen butai kaomise daiukie (芝居狂言舞台顔見せ大浮繪), after a performance of Yanone (矢の根), staged XI/1745 at the Nakamura Theatre (KN 2:479), published by Okumuraya Genroku;

◊ Tanaka Masunobu: Ichimuraza shin kyōgen (市村座新きょうげん), after the play Onna kusunoki yosooi kagami (□楠□粧鑑), staged XI/1745 at the Ichimura Theatre (KN 2:479), published by Izutsuya Sanemon;

◊ Okumura Masanobu: Shin Yoshiwara Ōmonguchi ukie kongen (新吉原大門浮繪根元), after the situation of circa 1745, published by Okumuraya Genroku; ◊ Tanaka Masunobu: Yoshiwara Nakanochō (吉原中の町), after the situation after the year 1745, published by Izutsuya Sanemon.

[6] Yet, Cal French in his monograph on Shiba Kōkan asserts that ‘the first uki-e, executed in Japan around 1734’ – apparently on the presumption that 1734 is the year of publication of Shimada Dōkan’s Kiku genpō chōken bengi (Understanding the Basic Rules for Viewing Towns with Compass and Ruler, 島田道桓:『規矩元法町見辨疑』), adapted after Abraham Bosse Algemeene manier van de Hr. Desargues tot de practyk der perspective gelijk tot die der meet-kunde. Amsterdam 1686.

[7] What is probably the first unmistakable record of the Dutch importing ‘a perspective with painting for the Lord of Suruga’ dates from VIII/1755, and  ‘a perspective with eighteen prints for the Lord of Sama (Saga?), and idem for the Lord of Shiga’ dates from 1759.

[8] See, for example, Hasegawa Mitsunobu: Ehon otogishina kagami of 1730.

[9] Interestingly, in the Kansai area, a smaller size was apparently in use, at least if we may accept that the many so-called meganee that Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795) painted from 1759 just to make a living – though he himself would later deny that – were used for showing in these karakuri. These only measure 205 x 270 mms. However, a printed one, hand-coloured and anonymous, is slightly larger, measuring 227 x 337 mm. It is titled Perspective View of the Large Room of a Teahouse (Ukie ageya ōzashiki), showing people partying in the large room of one of the teahouses in the Shimabara pleasure quarter in Kyoto, published by Kikuya xx? at Kyō Teramachidōri sanjō agaru xx?. Quite interestingly, it is pasted onto several layers of paper, so as to facilitate handling by the operator of the karakuri. As for the publisher – only the Kikuya is still readable, the rest is effaced from handling – this is not Kikuya Kihei, who is located at Teramachidōri Matsubara kudaru machi.