Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) was the most important Japanese woodcut artist of the Meiji period (1868-1912). He saw his work as the culmination of the Ukiyo-e tradition of the preceding Edo period, but he also developed new elements of western style and depicted contemporary events in a way that heralded the modern era. His use of daring design and expressive colour to turn the screw of violent and cruel situations made him the most vivid and shocking witness of Meiji Japan. Yet he could also conjure a refined poetry to give a new twist to traditional subjects.
Yoshitoshi was a pupil of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), whose influence modelled his early work. Throughout his career he repeated subjects familiar from Kuniyoshi’s prints, but his depictions grew more individual and penetrated deeper into the psychology of his subjects. He was a direct witness of the conflict and change as Japan was forced to open up to the rest of the world in the 1860s. He watched when the Emperor’s forces replaced those of the Shôgun in Edo (soon to be renamed Tokyo) in 1868. His early prints bear testament to the turmoil and violence around the time of the Meiji Restoration, and in the following decade he was recruited by newspapers to document current conflicts and news events in print.
In the early 1870s Yoshitoshi was ill with depression and commissions grew scarce, but he emerged with a more considered and characteristic style. He still depicted subjects of violence and cruelty, but the blood and gore was no longer explicit: he chose instead the psychological moment before or after the event, thus bringing the implicit violence inside the viewer’s mind.
In the 1880s Yoshitoshi produced a flow of his most charismatic prints. Many of the later prints, including his most famous and successful series, One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, looked back to subject matter of the past. He was increasingly dismayed at the threat western influences posed to traditional Japanese society, and he joined the group of historians and scholars called Kyûkokai (Committee for Research into the Past) formed by his friend, the actor Danjûrô IX, to uphold the cultural heritage of pre-Meiji Japan. They were concerned that western innovations like photography and lithography threatened woodblock prints, just as bright gas and electric lighting threatened the traditional effects of Kabuki theatre.
Yoshitoshi’s memorial poem seems to acknowledge not only his attempt to stem the tide of western culture sweeping Japan, but also his own struggle with the demons of mental illness which returned in his final years.