Zashiki Hakkei


Zashiki Hakkei
Print set

Suzuki Harunobu
Bunka Nippon Sha


Print is Public Domain; Photography is:   Creative Commons License


From the publisher's original pamphlet:

Zashiki Hakkei
A Set of Eight Prints
by Suzuki Harunobu

Bunka Nippon Sha Tokyo, Japan 1946

"The Eight Views of the Japanese Room"
A Set of Eight Prints by Suzuki Harunobu

The art of producing polychrome prints popularly known as Ukiyo-ye is peculiar to Japan. In no other country has the art of wood engraving developed so remarkably. The fame of the Ukiyo-ye has been carried round the world.

In this country the art of wood engraving was first used exclusively for producing prints of sutras or Buddhist scriptures. It gradually came to be applied in making prints of Buddhist images. Needless to say, the prints of those far-off days were not colored; they were all in India ink. Towards the end of the 14th century a method was devised of making woodcuts illustrating a narrative of a religious nature on horizontal scrolls known as Emakimono. But the prints made in this way were little better than reprints of pictures drawn with brush and ink.

Somewhere about the beginning of the 17th century wood engraving ceased to be employed for religious purposes. Nor did it any longer play a part in making prints not many degrees removed from reproductions of brush-and-ink paintings. It came to have a new significance as a fine art; it established itself as the art of making prints of street scenes, of the daily life of the people, in especial of women, and even of theatrical scenes. Woodcuts representing genre pictures thus became the fashion.

The year 1764 witnessed the first publication in Japan of polychrome prints executed by Suzuki Harunobu. The color scheme which Harunobu and his followers adopte for their broadsides was so enchanting as to suggest in the Japanese mind the beauty of brocade; hence in subsequent ears Nishiki-ye (lit. brocade pictures) became another name for multi-coloured Ukiyo-ye prints. The role Harunobu played in the development of wood engraving was thus prominent. To him must go the credit of having elevated color-printing to the dignity of an art peculiar to his country.

Unfortunately, however, of the life of this important colorist we know very little. Even about the date of his death opinions are divided, but what seems nearest to the truth is that he passed away in 1770 at the age of 46. As already mentioned, in 1764, just about six years before his death, Harunobu succeeded in working out a device to produce lovely prints by cutting five or six separate blocks, one for each color. A comparison between the prints before 1764 and those of subsequent years shows the marked superiority of the latter over the former, both in technique and design. For this the genius of Harunobu is, no doubt, largely accountable, but at the same time it must not be forgotten that he derived valuable suggestions from a number of Haiku poets or composers of those Lilliputian odes of 17 syllables which go by the name of Haiku or Hokku. Among these poets was one named Kyosen who was good at drawing as well as at knocking off epigrammatic poems. The vat of witticisms of this man of taste our Harunobu tapped, and drew inspiration abundantly. Kyosen's rich suggestions did much to carry the colorist's are to a very high pitch of excellence, as evidenced, for instance, by one of his masterpieces described below.

The exquisite design and the touches of humor discernible right through the set of eight prints reproduced here are largely, if not entirely, the product of the poet's imagination. This is clear from the circumstance that the prints in question bear the signature of Kyosen, and not of Harunobu. The Zashiki Hakkei, as this set of eight is called in Japanese, may be interpreted as the "eight scenes or sketches of the Japanese room." This set is generally believed to have been published three times. When the set was first published, Harunobu's name was on the envelope containing the prints, but not on the prints themselves where the name of Kyosen (巨川) only is inscribed. In the second issue the name of Kyosen disappears altogether from the prints, the wrapping paper bearing the name of Harunobu. The prints of the third issue have the name of Kyosen, clearly shown in white on a coloured ground. The set we have reproduced is of the original edition.

The Zashiki Hakkei reppresents sketches of the daily life of women. But none but those well acquainted with the mode of living, not to say the taste, of the Japanese will be able to grasp the meaning hidden behind the pictures; to appreciate the wit and humor of the artist. As the word Hakkei (eight views) indicates, the author got the idea from the Omi Hakkei (Eight Views of Lake Biwa), of scenic fame. By was of comparison the names of the Omi Hakkei and the titles of the eight pieces of the Zashiki Hakkei may be enumerated as follows:

Omi Hakkei 1. The evening snow on Mt. Hira 2. Rain by night at Karasaki 3. The autumn moon seen at Ishiyama 4. The evening bell of Miidera 5. The boats sailing back to Yabase 6. The wild geese alighting at Katata 7. The sunset at Seta 8. The bright sky with a breeze at Awazu

Zashiki Hakkei 1. The evening snow on a lacquered pail 2. The Chano-yu stand - rain by night 3. The autumn moon seen on the mirror-stand 4. The evening bell of a clock 5. A towel-hanger - a boat sailing back 6. The wild geese alighting on the Koto or Japanese harp 7. The Andon, paper framed night light - the sunset 8. The fan - the bright sky with a breeze

A mere glance at the prints shows that there is little, if any, logical link between the title of each picture and the picture itself. But a closer scrutiny will reveal how the artist must have tried to give expression to the association of ideas evidently derived from then numerical categories the Japanese people are so fond of using. Thus it needs but little imagination to see that "the evening bell of a clock" presupposes the "evening bell of Miidera," that the towel on the hanger is not unlike the sail of a boat, that the round top of the mirror-stand shown in the picture and the autumn grass drawn outside the round window suggest the presence of an autumn moon, and that the bridges placed under the Koto strings somewhat resemble a flock of geese in single file.

The figures on the Harunobu prints are characteristically slim. Their limbs are thin and small. The neck is usually depicted so long and slender that one could almost break it without the slightest difficulty. Harunobu was no realist. His was an imagination romantic even to sentimentalism. His main aim was to portray on a background of gay colors, an atmosphere of the life of the fair sex as pretty as dolls.

The set of prints reproduced here is the best of the works Harunobu brought out in 1764 or 1765 and may safely be regarded as representative of all of his works.

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This print set was featured in one of the Mokuhankan YouTube videos in May of 2019.

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