5 Ukiyo-e Books that are a Must-Buy for Japanese Woodblock Art Fans

We all love a good book to read right? And what would be even better, is if you could quench your thirst wanting to learn more about ukiyo-e and reading all in one full scoop! So here are five popular and well-recommended ukiyo-e books that outshine the others with their historical accuracy coupled with their remarkable aesthetic. So let’s dive right in!

Historic Pictoric Print: Moon of Enlightenment (Godo no Tsuki), from The Series One Hundred Aspects of The Moon 

By Historic Pictoric

A Poem by Fukami Jikyu Woodblock Print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi 1887

First up is Godo no Tsuki or Moon of Enlightenment, which reproduces and analyzes the Japanese woodblock prints from the series One Hundred Aspects of The Moon by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. This series was among the most famous ones from the Meiji period and features the moon in several different ways. Tsuki no Hyakushi (One Hundred Aspects of the Moon) is a collection of 100 distinct Nishiki-e i.e. colored woodblock prints, that were released in the later parts of Yoshitoshi’s artistry career, just before he passed away. The series has a unique feel to it, with not just the aspects of the moon that its depicting, but the stories they tell. They range from Chinese and Japanese anecdotes, historical events, feminism, birds, and animals all the way to fiction like ghosts and shadows, with no theme boundaries whatsoever but yet a common connection – the moon. So to say that Yoshitoshi wasn’t just an unconventional artist but a remarkably creative individual ahead of his time would not be an overstatement. With its museum quality ink and paper, alongside pictures that can fit various frame sizes, this book could be your best decor partner, all while you learn about ukiyo-e!

The Female Image 

By Hamanaka Shinji, Amy Reigle Newland 

The Female Image

Next up is The Female Image, which as you can probably tell from the name, is a book focused on bijin-ga or the prints of beautiful women and courtesans. A bilingual edition, it contains prints specifically from during the Shin-hanga movement by famous names like Hashiguchi Goyô (1880-1921), Torii Kotondo (1900-76) and Itô Shinsui (1898-1972). In addition, it also contains excerpts from curators and Japanese museums that have ukiyo-e on display. These include Shinji Hamanaka of the Yamatane Museum of Art in Tokyo. All in all, this book is a detailed analysis and appreciation of both Bijin-ga prints and the Shin-hanga movement. Collectors of Shin-hanga, including the CEO of Apple Steve Jobs have now established several galleries solely dedicated to these ‘new print’ pieces, and are playing their part in promoting these art pieces and nurturing this movement even today. And this book highlights just how major this movement happened to be. 

Time Present and Time Past 

By Amy Reigle Newland

Time Present and Time Past Images of a Forgotten Master Toyohara Kunichika

Time Present and Time Past: Images of a Forgotten Master: Toyohara Kunichika, is a book that depicts the artworks of Toyohara Kunichika coupled with a comprehensive analysis of the historical context at the time. Toyohara Kunichika’s works coincided with a time of immense change in Japan. It discusses the fascinating life of the artist, and how Japan and the West came together to bring out the best in Japanese woodblock art. With 130 of the artist’s prints in the book, it showcas Ukiyo-e genres such as Kabuki actor prints (“yakusha-e”) and prints of beautiful women (“bijinga”). So if you wish to know more about an artist who was forgotten in midst of all the change that Japan was going through at the time.

Kuniyoshi: The Faithful Samurai 

Kuniyoshi The Faithful Samurai

Following these books as the top three, next comes Kuniyoshi: The Faithful Samurai. This book highlights several aspects from two series by Utagawa Kuniyoshi Seichi gishi den (1847-48) and its sequel the Seichi gishin den (1848). These series focused on 47 ronins who went out to take revenge for their lord, who was killed during the 18th cenutry – a folktale that has beem very famous in streets of Japan. This tale was well-dramatized and adapted several times in kabuki theater and the following book is a tribute to both theater and those Japanese woodblock prints alike. Kuniyoshi was a master in warrior prints and this series shows the peak beauty of his warrior prints, and so deserves a tribute that this book itself.

Of Brigands and Bravery: Kuniyoshi’s Heroes

by Inge Klompmakers 

Of Brigands and Bravery Kuniyoshis Heroes of the Suikoden

Last but not the least, is Of Brigands and Bravery: Kuniyoshi’s Heroes of the Suikoden. Available in both paperback and hardback, this book focuses on 74 prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi that depict the tales of Suikoden. Reproducing those woodblock prints, this book gives a new and refined touch to the legend of Suikoden, in a way that would probably never leave your memory once you have scanned through this book. Not to mention, this was the first series by Kuniyoshi. And it did exactly what it intended to do: give the Japanese people a detailed image of how fierce their army was through highly detailed scenes of popularized Chinese warrior tales through heavily tattooed men and dark-themed intricate imagery. That was the element of Kuniyoshi – to bring out exactly what is intended in the subtlest of ways. Thus, this book appears as a tribute to Kuniyoshi’s spectacular works, which some would say, were ahead of their time.

Overall, there is a plethora of books out there that was quench your thirst on ukiyo-e but these five cover a multitude of domains, from nishiki-e, bijin-ga and yukusha-e, to one of the forgotten Japanese woodblock artists. You name it, and these books have it all. So if you’re not really a woodblock print collector but would love to find out more about Japanese woodblock art and the buying/ selling market, these books are just about the right place for you to start.


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