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  • Shifting Perspectives on the Shogunate’s Last YearsGountei Sadahide’s Bird’s-Eye View Landscape Prints
  • Sugimoto Fumiko (bio)
    Translated by Michael Burtscher

Multicolored woodblock prints, or nishiki-e 錦絵, brought information about out-of-the-ordinary topics and happenings to a broad audience, depicting everything from popular kabuki actors and courtesans to the latest rumors and incidents.1 By the first half of the nineteenth century, nishiki-e had become a distinctive genre produced in a standard format by publishers specializing in the genre. Rapidly printed in large quantities, they were quickly sold on the open market to the general public by similarly specialized urban-based booksellers.2 As such nishiki-e evolved into a medium for taking up current events and, together with amusement and entertainment, brought news of the momentous developments of the shogunate’s final decades into the everyday life of Edo townspeople.3 [End Page 1]

The shogunate, not looking favorably upon the open circulation of news about current political affairs and controversies, repeatedly issued regulations aimed at preventing the spread of such information. In response, authors, artists, and publishers devised means to circumvent these regulations, such as presenting current events through allusive references rather than direct exposition. For their audience, looking for hidden meanings became a customary part of the reading and viewing experience, and one of its expected pleasures.

Research on nishiki-e as a source of information about current events and on the allusions they employed has generally focused on types of prints where the coding is quite overt, such as those that allude to current political developments in the guise of retelling a well-known legend. Little attention has been given to another genre that began to appear in the same nishiki-e format in the mid-nineteenth century: bird’s-eye view (chōkanzu 鳥瞰図) prints of geographical vistas.4 Bird’s-eye view perspective screens and paintings of cityscapes have a long history, and until recently, researchers have tended to regard bird’s-eye view landscape prints as simply an extension of earlier modes and to see them as no more than unmediated representations of picturesque scenery. But why would landscape prints in the nishiki-e format have appeared and sold in considerable numbers at precisely this point in historical time? And are they as innocent of allusions to topical events as has been assumed? This article argues that the popularity of panoramic landscape prints of this kind in fact stems from their adoption of nishiki-e conventions to bring topical references and allusions into the depiction of landscapes. They may thus be considered a subgenre of what has been termed “current-event nishiki-e” (jiji nishiki-e 時事錦絵).5

This kind of panoramic landscape is associated particularly with Gountei Sadahide 五雲亭貞秀 (1807–1878/9). Sadahide developed a distinctive style of spatial expression in the large number of bird’s-eye view nishiki-e he produced. Below I focus on how he adapted this distinctive style to depict current events between 1862 and 1868, a turbulent period when the long-standing early modern political order centered on the shogunate started to come apart at its seams, civil war erupted, and new political arrangements began to emerge.6 Sadahide’s panoramic prints spoke in an entertaining yet informative way to Edo residents’ desire for news about events impinging on their world, information that in the absence of established forms of journalism had to be garnered largely from rumors and broadsheets.7 [End Page 2]

Scholarship on the Edo-based media that sprouted in this environment has tended to see it as supportive of the shogunal cause. Recent research, however, has shown that it often was oriented more toward communicating news about what was happening than conveying a particular political message.8 The same may be said of the bird’s-eye view landscape nishiki-e that Sadahide produced during this time period. They did not necessarily take a readily detectable political stance, but inserted in them were layers of references that served simultaneously to pique viewers’ interest and to alert them to the tumultuous course of events swirling around their city. The invitation to interpretation of the clues provided may be more subtle...


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pp. 1-30
Launched on MUSE
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