by Ed Sizemore
As Johanna’s unofficial roving reporter, I ventured into the wilds of Washington, DC, to view an exhibition of Shigeru Mizuki’s “Fifty-Three Stations of the Yokaido Road” at the Japan Information and Culture Center (JICC).
Shigeru Mizuki is a famous manga author best known for his long running manga GeGeGe no Kitaro, which has been serialized in Japan for over 40 years. The series tells of Kitaro’s struggle to maintain peace between the worlds of the yokai and humans. Yokai is a difficult term to translate. Originally, it appears these were woodland spirits, both benevolent and malevolent in nature. Later, this concept expanded to include the spirits of inanimate objects like tools, musical instruments, household items, etc. Also, the term includes what we would consider folklore ghosts like Bloody Mary, the Jersey Devil, and the Loch Ness Monster. Mizuki has made a career of illustrating these yokai in his manga.
Mizuki has chosen to parody a classic ukiyo-e series, Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido by Utagawa Hiroshige. The Tokaido road runs from Kyoto (the old capital of Japan) to Tokyo (the new capital of Japan). The series serves as a travelogue of the sites along this route. Hiroshige’s prints were done around 1833. Mizuki’s series has the same fifty-three landscapes but now populated with yokai. The caricature ranges from simply inserting yokai among the humans in Hiroshige’s original to completely replacing all humans with yokai. Mizuki’s series is parody done at the highest and best level. He never makes fun of the original ukiyo-e series, but instead plays with its style and subject matter to create his caricature.
The exhibit begins outside the JICC with seven of Mizuki’s prints next to the Hirogue prints they parodied. The juxtaposition helps you to see how carefully done the caricature really is. Mizuki stays true to the ukiyo-e style in his pictures but never just mechanically copies Hirogue’s work. Even in the unaltered elements Mizuki brings his own interpretation to the scene.
Also outside the JICC, there is a video showing how a craftsman makes a woodcut block and the method used for printing from that block. You get a real appreciation for how labor intensive a woodcut print truly is. It’s all done by hand, including the mixing of the inks. First, you create a master block that will create all the black lines and black areas. You make your first impression from this block. Next, you create a block for each color to be used on the print. Some of Mizuki’s prints required 28 blocks to be created. (In fact, if my math is right it took just over 1,000 blocks total to create the entire Mizuki series.) You then take your print, carefully line it up with the color block, and apply that specific color. Needless to say, a slip of the hand or careless placement of the sheet ruins a print. It’s an amazing process to watch. I can’t imagine the patience it takes to produce just one complete print.
Inside the JICC, all fifty-three of Mizuki’s prints are displayed along with a map of Japan showing the Tokaido road and where each of the stations is located. A message from Mizuki himself about his inspiration and asperations for the print series is printed on a poster. There is biographical information about Mizuki, including a replica of a scroll he produced depicting the major events of his life. (The most amazing fact is that Mizuki lost his left arm in WWII.) I was really delighted to see four of the seventeen actual woodblocks used to make the Nihonbashi station print.
There is also a large screen TV inside the JICC that runs an NHK special on yokai and even mentions Mizuki’s manga and his contribution to yokai folklore. The special is about twenty minutes long and worth watching. It gives you the background needed to really appreciate the characters in Mizuki’s prints. You also see how well respected Mizuki is among folklore specialists for the research evident in his manga.
I highly recommend the exhibit to anyone in or around the DC area. You can rush through everything in about half an hour. If you have the time, it takes about two hours to leisurely walk through the exhibit and watch the two videos. The exhibit is on display until May 5th. The only problem will be the restrictive hours of the JICC. They are only open 9 AM to 5 PM on Monday through Friday, with no weekend hours.
The exhibit is sponsored by the Yanoman Corporation. You can go to their website to view small pictures of the prints. Unfortunately, I can’t read Japanese, so I don’t know if they accept overseas orders. They have lithographs, the exhibit book, and even limited edition prints made from the actual woodblocks available.