Toshikata, Tanaka Ishimatsu in Moonlight

Mizuno Toshikata (1866 - 1908) Tanaka Ishimatsu in Moonlight, c.1895. Oban triptych.

Set aside the politics of this print for a moment and take in what by any standards is a masterpiece of woodblock printing. There are some truly great pieces in the current exhibition but for sheer design, sensibility and skill I think this print is the finest.

The subtlety of effect that drifts across the surface of these sheets is breathtaking, that it is all achieved using carved wooden blocks is even more astonishing. The print depicts an act of heroism during the first Sino-Japanese war in Korea in 1894. Most of the large number of prints made to celebrate the newly armoured, emergent nation-state of Japan during the war are crude and jingoistic by comparison to this subtle nocturne. Toshikata’s delicate shifting palette of grays, the exquisite outline of the twisted pine and the mysterious silhouette of the enemy figure are more redolent of seventeenth century screens than they are of the new mechanical age.

It is important to remember that Japan had no need of warriors for several hundred years since it had remained consistently at peace. The samurai of this exhibition are historical memoirs, symbols, stories or part of the collective imagination of a civil society. It was not until the 1890’s that the woodblock artist was obliged to picture a real fighting man. It is telling that in this depiction we are looking at an ordinary man, ordinarily dressed doing an heroic thing. How different this is from previous warrior prints of princes in ceremonial armour wielding legendary swords. The war artists of this period above anything else demonstrate the birth of a new Japan and despite the medium and the great beauty of the work, this is the true subject of this extraordinary piece of work.

The printing techniques, Bokashi (shading), Karazuri (blind embossing), Mokumezuri (manipulating the grain of the wood to visual effect) are all present here. The print is a fine impression using deluxe techniques, three unattached sheets all full size with margins. The colours remain fine and fresh and there are few if any condition issues. A fine print.

Signed Osai Toshikata ga, publisher Sekiguchi Masajiro.