- Japanese Warrior Prints 1646-1905
In understanding the warrior prints (musha-e) that flourished in Japan, we need two sets of materials: the warrior prints themselves and the historical tales of war (gunki monogatari) from which these prints were drawn. The warrior prints emerged in the mid-seventeenth century and came to an end in 1905 - the year the Russo-Japanese War was concluded. [End Page 448]
Japanese Warrior Prints 1645-1905 contains a finely selected group of representative warrior prints that visualize heroic samurai figures who coloured the critical moments of Japanese history. This collection of illustrations, which is presented chronologically and accompanied by well-documented renditions, offers a rich repertoire of visual representations of heroism. It is worth noting that these prints not only entertained readers but also helped to support the woodblock-print industry in early modern and Meiji times. The editors of this volume, James King and Yuriko Iwakiri, have done a wonderful job in locating, collecting, classifying, and cataloguing a wide range of warrior prints. This publication will surely serve as a comprehensive introduction to Western readers who might ask why and how the Japanese people became so infatuated with heroic warriors and their tales, which stretch from the Shōmonki (Chronicle of Masakado, 940) to the Taiheiki (Chronicle of the Great Peace, c. 1340-67) in early modern times.
Interestingly, the background of warrior prints is found in ancient and medieval times, but the prints themselves were a product of early modern times. One might wonder about this. The editors do not directly tackle this question but, rather, focus on the details of the comings and goings of the artists who produced the prints as well as the artistic styles and literary and theatrical ramifications of these pieces over time.
In the historical trajectory of warrior prints, the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), which was followed ten year later by the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), proved to be a turning point in that the previous heroic samurai and their much-cherished sword fights were replaced with modern military officers and the unprecedented machinery of war. This produced a new genre, often referred to as sensō-e (war pictures). As King and Iwakiri point out, 'Whilst musha-e as a genre was often infused with nostalgia, sensō-e are propaganda pieces, advertisements of the military triumphs which glorify the courage and determination of the "modern" Japanese army and navy.' Still, this new genre of sensō-e reflected, to some extent, the traditional sentiments of heroic tales, all of which featured acts of bravery conducted against insurmountable odds.
To be sure, in early modern times the warrior prints could not escape government censorship. But the most critical challenge, and the one that eventually ended the tradition of warrior prints, was, understandably, 'the new lithographic and photographic technologies which allowed war reportage to be circulated more immediately and, in the opinion of many, more realistically.' Modern technology delivered the death knell of the warrior prints, which had been embedded in a superhuman heroism that refused the limits of time and space.
But the termination of warrior prints did not mean the demise of warrior culture, which has been carved deep into the collective psyche [End Page 449] of the Japanese. In early modern times, for example, Empress Jingū (and, by extension, her son Emperor Ōjin), who had, according to legend, conquered the ancient Korean kingdoms, brought the Japanese to the height of national pride. She was certainly a military hero. Similarly, the high points of the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War at the turn of the nineteenth century, which were thoroughly exploited for representation in warrior prints, decisively elevated Japan to the status of a great power. It is ironic that the flowering of warrior prints in these years presaged their demise. Still, the heroic images of warrior prints continued to survive until 1945, albeit through a different medium. Japanese Warrior Prints 1645-1905 offers a valuable graphic introduction to the enduring power of warrior culture in Japanese history.