Home > analysis, comics, history, Japan > Forms of Japanese Mass Art: Ukiyo-e Prints and Manga

Forms of Japanese Mass Art: Ukiyo-e Prints and Manga

The appeal of Japanese anime and manga is prolific today in Japan and abroad. While the historical lineage of manga dates back centuries to scrolls depicting scenes from The Tale of Genji, the closest relative of manga is that of the Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo Period, Ukiyo-e (images of the floating world). This is drawn from their sources of influence and the ways that they influence Western cultures, as well as their consumption as a form of mass art. In the regards to both ukiyo-e and contemporary manga, they largely influence or have been influenced by, Western arts and have been the largest form of commercial art in Japan.

To understand the parallels of the influence and influences ukiyo-e prints and manga share, it’s important to understand their individual sources of influence. In the mid to late-nineteenth century, after Japan had become more exposed to the international community after the Meiji Restoration, ukiyo-e prints began to tour in Western Europe. The exposure to this art was very influential for the French impressionists gaining popularity at the time. As Gabriel Weisberg notes, “Indeed, by 1889 the aesthetics of the Japanese print began to play a dominant role in the printmaking renaissance occurring in Paris. Already Japanese painting had stylistically influenced French painting…in their efforts to achieve a flattened pictorial space and a concentration on surface pattern” (Cate 55).

Van Gogh’s The Blooming Plumtree: An obvious influence of Japanese art

As the French impressionists learned from Japanese art, early manga creators learned much from Western art and returned much to them. Manga pioneer, Tezuka Osamu, developed his sense of art from that of the West, being very much a fan of Western popular culture art. Later manga artists would ‘refine’ Tezuka’s style of art (which had a resemblance to that Disney) and it’s this style that American comic book artists and animators would begin to use since the 1980s, only to re-influence Japanese creators. Manga in that regard is particularly interesting because it is a participant in an international community of artists working together. A trend that began when the French impressionists began to borrow from ukiyo-e artists. Richard Davies summarizes this sense of influence as a larger part of the whole Japanese culture in the form of iitoko-dori (a term regarding cultural borrowing), “…iitoko-dori appeared as phenomenon very early in Japanese history, and it has greatly affected the Japanese way of thinking. This process means taking in the most convenient parts of other systems, and [making] it is now part of the cultural identity of the Japanese” (Davies 130). There’s the ability to adapt with change in these forms, but also to give and share.

Osamu Tezuka, you were awesome

One of the strongest reasons that there was an appeal for ukiyo-e and manga to inspire, and become inspired, is their accessibility. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints became extremely popular in the Edo Period, especially after the Genroku era up until the first few decades of the twentieth century. The art was primarily produced and purchased by the urban merchant class who were oppresed in the Japanese social system. The prints served as a counter to the Buddhist and Chinese style paintings that were made for the upper classes. Ukiyo-e prints were produced for people who had a large access to money and the popular culture of the Edo Period. In this sense, ukiyo-e prints were the first form of mass art in modern Japan; available to a disenfranchised class who actively engaged in the the material of the prints, could afford the cost, and stimulate the production of the prints themselves.

Ghost ukiyo-e prints are some of the coolest

Manga has existed in a very similar fashion. While there is arguably more social mobility in contemporary Japan than there was during the Edo period, the demographic for manga is widely aimed at those who actively engage in popular culture (typically those in the middle class or below). Manga today makes up a vast majority in digital publications, and just below half of all published materials in Japan today. Like ukiyo-e prints, it is available to those who can afford the cost of manga (which is fairly cheap), as well as stimulating the production of manga serials and works by the demand for works. Without a doubt manga, and anime, are the most visible form of mass art in Japanese popular culture today, just like ukiyo-e prints were in terms of art representation and Edo popular culture. Both art forms dominated the popular culture of their respective times.

Shonen Jump has been a spearhead in current manga popularity everywhere

Ukiyo-e woodblock prints were prolific during the Edo Period, being purchased and produced by the demands of the oppressed urban merchant class. The art form also was inspirational to French artists who wanted to learn from the artistic qualities present in the prints. Manga production is very similar to ukiyo-e in that there is an incredible demand for the works today. The form also has an interesting history in the influence of Western comics art and the subsequent exchange of influences between Western creators in the past few decades. The two forms share patterns of influence and economic consumption. In these ways, manga can be seen as a successor to the ukiyo-e prints as the dominant form of mass art in Japanese popular culture.






Works Cited

Cate, Phillip Dennis. “Japanese Influence on French Prints 1883-1910.” Japonisme: Japanese Influence on French Art 1854-1910. Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, unknown date.

Davies, Rodger and Osamu Ikeno. “Iitoko-dori: Adopting Elements of Foreign Culture.” The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2002.

  1. February 4, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    Thanks for your effort for writing “Forms of Japanese
    Mass Art: Ukiyo-e Prints and Manga Nalvic’s Reviews”. I actuallymight really be coming back for far more reading and commenting here shortly. I am grateful, Karri

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: