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Illustrated with the full Tsukioka Yoshitoshi and Utagawa Yoshiiku woodblock print edition of 1866-1868

  • By Andrew Forbes and David Henley

Between 1866 and 1868, in collaboration with another noted ukiyo-e artist, Utagawa Yoshiiku (1833-1904), Yoshitoshi produced a series of images of graphic horror and cruelty. Utagawa Yoshiiku was also a student of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a member of the Utagawa School, and therefore a close colleague of Yoshitoshi. It seems that there was a professional rivalry between the two men, but that they often shared the same writers and publishers, co-operating whenever necessary.

The ‘bloody prints' series the two artists produced is entitled Eimei Nijuhasshuku, generally translated as ‘Twenty-eight Famous Murders with verse'. Within the series, Yoshitoshi produced 14 prints, and Utagawa the remainder. The prints show decapitations, stabbings, murder, torture and lots of blood. Some are derived from actual murders, others from Kabuki plays.

Known as muzan-e or ‘cruel pictures' the images are disturbing both for their explicit violence and, in some cases, for the accompanying suggestion of grotesque eroticism, giving rise to the ‘ero guro' genre which continues in some of today's Japanese manga.

It has also been suggested that Yoshitoshi's ‘bloody prints' influenced the writer Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), some of whose works dwell on destructive erotic obsessions. Similarly the pop artist Tadanori Yokoo (born 1936). Of the latter Yukio Mishima wrote in 1968:

‘Tadanori Yokoo's works reveal all of the unbearable things which we Japanese have inside ourselves and they make people angry and frightened. He makes explosions with a frightening resemblance lying between the vulgarity of billboards advertising variety shows during festivals at the Yasukuni Shrine [dedicated to Japan's war dead] and the red containers of Coca Cola in American pop art - things which are in us but which we do not want to see'.

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