Meiji Ukiyo-e Woodblock print
Tsukioka (orig. Yoshioka) Kunzaburo. Go: Gyokuoro, Ikkaisai, Kaisai, Oju, Sokatei, Yoshitoshi. After 1873 he changed his family name to Taiso.
Yoshitoshi in His Early Years
The given name of Yoshitoshi was Yonejiro. We do not know much about his youth. But all indications are, that it was not a very pleasant one. His father had taken a mistress and the boy was apparently unwanted. He was brought up by his uncle.
At the age of eleven, Yoshitoshi was enrolled as a student of the school of Kuniyoshi, the great artist of ukiyo-e. One of his school class mates was Yoshiiku. Yoshiiku bullied the younger Yoshitoshi. The rivalry and hostility between both should continue for the rest of their lives.
At the age of fourteen, Yoshitoshi composed his first woodblock print - a triptych of the naval battle of Dannoura in which the Minamoto clan destroyed the forces of the Taira clan in 1185. The same year, in 1853, US Commodore Perry arrived with a fleet of naval battle ships and forced the opening of Japan to the West.
Tough Times and Bloody Prints
Kuniyoshi was like a father towards Yoshitoshi. When Kuniyoshi died in 1861, hard times were ahead of the young student. He hardly had enough commissions to survive.
The early sixties were a period of great unrest and civil war-like skirmishes between proponents of the old Shogun government and their opponents who gathered around the emperor. During the Shogunate, that is since 1192, the Japanese Emperors had been powerless.
In addition to the political instability, a devastated economy made things worse for ordinary citizens. Japan was then in a deep recession, plagued by hyper inflation and by crop failures.
In 1868 the last Shogun resigned after 2000 men of his troops were badly defeated by an imperial force in the bloody battle of Ueno. It was more of a massacre than a battle. The imperial soldiers were well-equipped with modern guns while their enemies fought with swords.
Yoshitoshi eye-witnessed this battle. Immediately afterwards he composed many prints with extremely bloody and gruesome scenes - often with a black background. Certainly, these Yoshitoshi prints must be seen in connection with the events that took place in these years of upheaval. Besides, the publishing of ukiyo-e prints was always driven by the thrive for commercial success. And not much different from today's tabloid press, themes with blood, sex and crime sold well.
Yoshitoshi During the Meiji Restoration
With the Meiji Restoration, Yoshitoshi experienced a short period of modest commercial success followed by a sharp decline in commissions and bitter poverty. In the early seventies his problems with mental illness and depression erupted. Unable to work, he hardly produced any prints for two years.
In 1873 he recovered from his depressions and changed his name to Taiso, which means "great resurrection". But in spite of new energies, his poverty continued. Yoshitoshi Tsukioka had to experience embarrassing moments. Okoto, his mistress sold herself to a brothel to raise money for Yoshitoshi's support. Okoto shared the fate of many wives of impoverished former samurai who could not support their families. After the end of the Shogunate the privileges that this warrior class had enjoyed for centuries, were abolished.
The Satsuma Rebellion
In 1877 the political events changed Yoshitoshi's life again. This time it was in his favor. An uprise of the samurai class came to its final climax. The Samurai were lead by Saigo Takamori. The imperial troops pushed them back. In the final battle of Satsuma, 60,000 government troops faced 40,000 rebels. The rebels were completely crushed in a huge bloody battle. The casualty rate was more than 50% percent among the samurai rebels. 2,000 more were executed later.
In the aftermath of this rebellion, there was a huge demand for illustrations of the events and Yoshitoshi Tsukioka was literally flooded with commissions.
Yoshitoshi - Late Success and Recognition
In the eighties, Yoshitoshi Taiso was finally financially settled. He moved into a huge house of his own and married a woman from the pleasure quarters. His school flourished. In 1882 he was employed by a newspaper. This gave him a steady income and marked the end of long years of poverty and sufferings.
Yoshitoshi's reputation grew, and in spite of his bad health he relentlessly composed a great number of prints. These years were Yoshitoshi's most prolific ones - not only in terms of quantity, but also in terms of artistic quality. In 1985 the first designs of One Hundred Aspects of the Moon were published. This series was extremely popular. People waited in long lines to get one of the new Yoshitoshi prints. In 1888 the series 32 Aspects of Customs and Manners was published - a series of women prints. In 1889 a new series with ghost subjects came on the market: New Form of 36 Ghosts. Yoshitoshi Taiso firmly believed in the existence of ghosts. He was convinced of having experienced by himself some personal encounters with supernatural appearances.
The symptoms of mental illness became more and more frequent. Nevertheless Yoshitoshi Tsukioka continued to work. He died on June 9, 1892 from a cerebral hermorrhage at the age of 53.
Source: John Stevenson, "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon".