Cats in Japanese Wooden Block Mold: How Japan’s Favorite Animal Starred in Popular Art
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Cats in Japanese Wooden Block Mold: How Japan’s Favorite Animal Starred in Popular Art

Few countries love cats as much as Japan, and none expresses that love so clearly in its various art forms. While not eternal, the Japanese predilection for all things cat does extend deeper into history than some of us might assume. “In the sixth century, Buddhist monks traveled from China to Japan,” writes Philip Kennedy in the Illustration Chronicles. On these trips, they brought scriptures, pictures, and relics – items they hoped would help them introduce Buddhism to the great island nation.” They also brought cats, partly as good luck and partly because of their ability to “guard sacred texts from hungry mice that were kept aboard their ships.”

Buddhism made a lasting mark on Japanese culture, but the cats practically overtook it. “Today, cats can be found almost everywhere in Japan,” wrote Kennedy. “From specialty cafes and shrines to whole cat islands. Indeed the owner of one of the Japanese train stations was so enamored with their cat that they appointed the stationmaster.”

In the mid-nineteenth century, the ukiyo-e woodblock print master Utagawa Kuniyoshi can keep a studio flooded with cats and not seem too eccentric for it. “His love for cats crept into his work, and they appeared in many of his best prints. Sometimes they appear as characters from famous stories; other times, it is a beautiful expressive study. ”

Kuniyoshi made his name illustrating the stories of historical warriors, but his artistic capacities also include “everything from landscapes and animals to ghost sightings and scenes from popular kabuki theatre.” When the Tokugawa Shogunate felt its power decline in the 1840s, it was prohibits “luxury” such as depictions of kabuki actors (as well as geisha).

To accommodate that request, Kuniyoshi created a humanoid cat who was endowed with features that resembled a famous figure of his time. This is apart from the series Neko no atejior “cat homophones”, with cats set to spell fish names, and Cats Suggested As Fifty-Three Tōkaidō Stasiun StationsHiroshige’s previous cat parody Fifty-three Tōkaidō . Stations. Apart from eating mice, cats were not known to be very useful animals, but many Japanese artists can attest to their inspirational value even today.

A collection of Kuniyoshi prints featuring cats can be found in books, Cats in Ukiyo-e: Japanese Wooden Block Mold.

via Illustration Chronicles

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcaststs about the city, language and culture. The project includes a Substack newsletter Books about the City, book The Stateless City: Stroll through 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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