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  • The Prints of Isoda Koryūsai: Floating World Culture and Its Consumers in Eighteenth-Century Japan
  • Timon Screech (bio)
The Prints of Isoda Koryūsai: Floating World Culture and Its Consumers in Eighteenth-Century Japan. By Allen Hockley. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2003. 313 pages. $60.00.

Allen Hockley has written a many-faceted book. Its title is striking. Few recent tomes bear such stark, canon-building designations. Hockley's decision to address the prints of Isoda Koryūsai (1735-90) (although nearly 100 paintings and over 50 illustrated books are attributed to him) has an old-fashioned ring too: recent work on "pictures of the floating world" (ukiyo-e), of which Koryūsai is a prime exemplar, has sought to dismantle the wall between prints and paintings.

Hockley seeks to redress his chosen master's reputation as a poor reverberation after the acclaimed Harunobu (1724-65) or conversely as a precursor to the superior Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815). Where this book diverges from the standard advocacy of one-artist monographs is the manner in which Hockley seeks to rehabilitate Koryūsai.

It is not Hockley's purpose to propose Koryūsai as an unjustly neglected great artist, but to site him in the world of consumers. Notwithstanding the popularity of floating-world art, few books have addressed issues of marketing. There is little evidence to deploy, although several studies of publishing more generally exist. Within the wealth of Edo-period commentary on ephemera and social fads, there is frustratingly little on prints. To Hockley, this absence is part of his point: pictures of the floating world are the commentaries on the age, and to expect commentary on them "is akin to asking [End Page 511] for a chronicle of a chronicle" (p. 8). There is a bit more period-reporting than Hockley allows, such as in the antiquarian compilations of Shikitei Sanba (1726-1822) and the Ukiyo-e ruikō (which he cites), begun in the year of Koryūsai's death. But in Hockley's interpretation, the "best" ukiyo-e master will be the most popular, as assessed by extent of production. Koryūsai is said to be the most productive artist of the period, and Hockley selects him for that reason. Regrettably, he gives no indication of the degree by which Koryūsai's output exceeds that of his peers.

Readers can question justification, even in the most popular arts, for disallowing hierarchies of achievement. Period commentaries show quality was adjudicated. Might not consumers have complained of Koryūsai overpublishing? Anyway, without a sense of print run, it is also hard to equate number of images published with number of sheets in circulation. Koryūsai may have not found enough buyers for extended runs, forcing him into incessant production.

How does ukiyo-e chronicle the times? Even themes on urban trends (sumo, beautiful women, actors) are really falsifying glosses, not transparent depictions. Hockley rightly views prints as problematic representations. He wrongly contends he is the first to do so, with previous scholars "invariably access[ing] floating-world culture through the subjects depicted in the prints" (p. 6). This is conceit.

Koryūsai appears in Hockley's book as a supreme strategist. He becomes a far more interesting figure—if not a better artist—as a result of this repositioning. Koryūsai's every gambit is ascribed to his desire to insinuate his products into first place in the market. Yet to give so much volition to one individual is to lose track of the collective mode of print production. What used to be called the "ukiyo-e quartet" of publisher, designer, block-carver, and print-rubber is boiled down to Koryūsai's single urge. Perhaps the last two members of the foursome had little role in determining subject, theme, or market strategy, but they could raise or lower the quality of a finished product definitively. Consumers would have calibrated the level of finish as closely as they calibrated designs. Many recent studies have stressed the role of the publisher, who, rather than the designer, is taken as the prime mover. We need more from Hockley about why he has jettisoned this and reverted to...


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pp. 511-515
Launched on MUSE
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