Pulp fiction, Japan-style

Pulp fiction, Japan-style
Stories from Melodrama in Meiji Japan
18 May 2017

Japan, 1868: an uncertain and tumultuous cultural landscape. Stories of poisoned husbands and murdered lovers. Tales of women turned evil, wreaking havoc upon those around them. Countless tales of unrequited love.

Beauty under the moon

Keishū Takeuchi (1861-1942), Beauty under the moon (Gekka no bijin) 1896, woodblock print, nla.obj-152411793

Tragic and melodramatic, these stories from Japan's Meiji period were explored and perpetuated through the proliferation of Japanese novels of the time. Apart from being a thoroughly gripping read (comparable with the likes of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth in terms of drama and heartbreak), these novels reflected the uncertainty of the times as Japan morphed from a feudal society to a modern western-style state. A society in flux meant that traditional values and relationships were being challenged – with dramatic changes in how people lived their lives.

Kuchi-e: more than pretty pictures

The Library's new exhibition Melodrama in Meiji Japan showcases a significant collection of the frontispiece illustrations (kuchi-e or 'opening pictures') from these types of novels. On first glance they seem just like pretty pictures: softly coloured, intricately detailed, and produced using fascinating woodblock techniques. Of course, you can wander through the gallery and appreciate them on their face value as beautiful examples of the woodblock art medium. But what is really fascinating is the stories they illustrate. Look a little closer at the facial expressions, clothing, symbols, the interaction between characters. It is in these details that the stories reveal themselves.

Read on as exhibition curator Dr Gary Hickey reveals some of the symbolism in the illustrations, and gives us a sense of the tragic, intriguing and often bizarre stories you will find in the exhibition.

Widow and widower (Futariyamome), 1899

Widow and widower

Keishū Takeuchi (1861-1942), Widow and widower (Futari yamome) 1899, nla.obj-152407143

Designed by the artist Takeuchi Keishū , this kuchi-e comes from the novel Futariyamome by Hirotsu Ryūrō (1861-1928). Ryūrō developed the literary genre of the tragic novel, in which stories of contemporary life are portrayed in a sardonically overdramatic manner.

Futariyamome is typical of Ryūrō’s melancholy tales, in which the central character experiences various tribulations en route to a gloomy end. The story deals with Owaka, a stunningly beautiful, licentious tea-house waitress. Owaka leaves the city with her innocent fifteen-year-old lover, the handsome Giji, to live on the farm of her widowed brother. In a typically tragic turn, the following year Giji suddenly dies, leaving Owaka grief stricken. She covers his body with her cloak before he is buried and then dedicates her life to taking care of the graves of her dearly departed.

In the kuchi-e illustration, Keishū depicts Owaka in a rectangular insert, superimposed on the scene of a graveyard under moonlight (a common technique to add dramatic emphasis). Owaka stands against a lonely background devoid of any details. Diminished by grief, her weak form is emphasised by her narrowed shoulders and slightly askew posture. Small details—her hair in disarray, her biting down on a piece of cloth in an effort to contain her emotions—add pathos to the scene. Death is implied by the purple colour of the robe, symbolic of passing away.

Lady Kesa (Kesa Gozen), 1898

Lady Kesa

Tomioka Eisen (1864-1905), Lady Kesa (Kesa Gozen)  1898, nla.obj152417791

Chizuka Reisui’s (1867-1942) novel Kesa Gozen tells the story of Lady Kesa, who fears for her husband's life at the hands of Endō Moritō, a jealous unwanted suitor. Lady Kesa feigns acceptance of Moritō’s advances, asking him to kill her husband in his sleep. Sacrificing her own life for the sake of her husband, she places herself in her husband’s bed and is killed by Moritō. The artist Tomioka Eisen depicts her cutting her hair, itself a symbolic act of death, before entering her husband’s bed.

Murder of his wife (Nyōbō goroshi), 1895

Murder of his wife

Mishima Shōsō (1856-1928), Murder of his wife (Nyōbō goroshi)  1895, nla.obj152420191

Mishima Shōsō was famous as a painter of historical subjects, but also designed kuchi-e. Published in Bungei kurabu Nyōbō goroshi by Emi Suiin (1869-1934), this image relates to a scene from Suiin’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, set in Japanese-occupied Taiwan in 1903. In the story, an envious subordinate officer of the colonial governor tricks him into believing his wife is having an affair with another officer. In a fit of jealousy, the governor murders his wife. Later realising his mistake, he commits suicide. In this kuchi-e, we see the governor approaching his unknowing wife, clutching a large knife behind his back.

Melodrama in Meiji Japan is on show at the Library from 24 May to 27 August 2017.