Epic Tale in Small Japanese Print

Kuniyoshi lived through most of the 19th century. He created over 10 000 drawings, which were selling for Japanese pennies in thousands or sometimes tens of thousands of copies.

Of course he was competing with Hokusai for the Japanese consumer, but it was not the fierce type of competition we are used to seeing today. Kuniyoshi had a special skill in creating worlds inhabited by long-dead samurais. Today, he would be a film director specialising in sci-fi and fantasy thrillers and action movies, always with a touch of horror and mysticism.

I’d enjoy the heroics of cutting the ugly heads of giant toads were I still in my teen years, but I really can’t do it now. Yet, there’s a drawing I enjoy so much that would do almost anything to get a print of it.

This is a monk, trudging up a mountain. Look closely, and then we’ll talk about its artistic value.

It is clickable, and is worth clicking on to get a large version.
It is clickable, and is worth clicking on to get a large version.

So, why is this Art?

The Monk is leaving the world inhabited by people. He is about to leave the boundary of the space visible to us. We don’t know what is waiting for him there, but we are sure there’s no next village, right? There’ll be just the white emptiness and virgin snow up that mountain: the spiritual world.

An artist less smart than Kuniyoshi would not leave the monk’s future to our imagination, but would move the monk to the right, drawing the impossibly difficult snowy side of the mountain. And this would make the drawing a banal statement of the difficulty of spiritual journey leaving no space for imagination of the viewer. I will be showing a few examples of this in my future posts.

There’s another argument for NOT showing the monk’s future: when we embark on a spiritual journey, we don’t and can’t know what lies ahead. It simply can’t be shown.

But why has the monk decided to leave the village on this particularly nasty night? Why not wait for a more favourable weather? Look at the tree. The wind blowing from the sea has bent it at the angle at which the monk is leaning forward. But this wind is not just coldly ruffling the monk’s robes. It also gives the monk a push, it is, in a way, helping him to move on. Some bad things can happen in life, but you must use them to push you up.

Note that the village is dead: its inhabitants hid themselves behind curtains and locked doors. For them it is just a snow storm they have to wait out. But for the monk this is again not just black and white. It is this storm that whitens the world, makes it symbolically spiritual. Accidentally, it is also makes it cold for the feet.

Now visualise a vertical line just behind the monk’s back. This line separates the world of the living from the spiritual one. The artist shows the monk at the moment when he’s left the living world but has not yet entered the other part. Yet, we are somehow sure the monk won’t stop. It is both the wind and the rhythm of his steps in the snow.  He’s not in the spiritual world yet, but his next step will irreversibly put him there. And he’s going  to make this step.

All in all, this is one of the most thought-intense drawings I have ever seen, indeed a picture worth a thousand words. Were da Vinci to see it, he’d surely would find it a confirmation to his belief that “simplicity is the highest form of sophistication”.


  1. This is a very clever artist. Look at the tree, its also the rocky mountainscapes definition. look at the huts, they also double as the base of the mountain as smaller snowy hillocks. look at the sea, it is also the sky. This painter understood the mutual shapes underlying nature and used it to expert advantage to make features represent more than itself.

    1. I have a question that doesn’t fit here – but you mentioned in another post that you work for or own an eye-tracking software company. Are there any images the eye does not like to look at? I.e. looks at least? I have a second question too – are you an artist? Do you create art?

      1. I am not an artist, though I am often asked why I don’t venture in the visual arts territory myself. I happen to have an analytic mind that is good at synthesis, and lacks spontaneity. I can come up with a metaphor, but I need ten minutes to think it up. Shakespear could produce three metaphors in one sentence. Yet, is writing about art in a way that opens new doors for readers not an artform? ))) So, in a way, I am, perhaps, an aspiring artist in this sense.

        To answer your first question, it is important to remember that the eye doesn’t have the brain of its own. Eye sees things, and the brain decides if the things are pleasant or not. We don’t look at things that we believe are insignificant, or boring. Yet, the eye picks up and lingers on images that are either positively or negatively involving. Interesting and enjoyable stuff is equal to things that are irritating or disturbing.

  2. Breathtaking analysis. I have been familiar with Kuniyoshi’s and Hokusai’s work before, but have never looked at them _that_ way before. Mind just a little blown 🙂

    1. They were, primarily, pop art story tellers and, occasionally, creators of pop beauty. The first mass production of art in history. And they were very, very clever story-tellers )

  3. There is something very still about the image despite the great activity and effort that it depicts: rather like the breath between one step and the next. It is a lovely work – both subtle and enthralling at the same time. I’m going to have to have to check out more of Kuniyoshi’s work now; it draws me in.

    1. In the 2nd half of the 19th century, when Europe “discovered” Japanese prints, it created a revolution in visual arts. Today, that discovery is largely forgotten. But it is beautiful art, created by artists with wild, bizarre and amazing fantasy. Were those not prints but oils, their price would make them equal to the van goghs and picassos of Europe. Go on, look into his work. His samurais are the awsomeness illustrated )

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