One Hundred Famous Views of Edo: 118, New Year's Eve Foxfires at Nettle Tree Oji, 1857
Ink on Paper
13 1/4 in. x 8 5/8 in. (336.55 mm x 219.08 mm)
Inari, the kami of the harvest, is rarely depicted in human form. The deity’s presence is suggested by stone sculptures of foxes, considered Inari’s messengers and protectors of the rice harvest since they catch the mice who eat the rice. Foxes (Japanese: kitsune) feature prominently in folklore, both as benign supernatural beings and as wicked, harmful creatures who bewitch and possess people – a belief originating in Chinese folklore. During the Edo period, it was thought that on New Year's Eve, foxes from all regions gathered under the Nettle Tree at Ōji. These foxes were believed to carry torches in their mouths creating kitsune-bi, or fox fires. Local farmers predicted the success of the coming year's crops by the brightness of these fires. In this print from his series, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Hiroshige imagines the mysterious atmosphere of a gathering of sacred foxes.
- Meher McArthur, January 7, 2021
Once his original publisher and his teacher, Utagawa Toyohiro, passed away in 1830, Hiroshige found new artistic freedom. Sketched during his travels along the Tokaido route connecting Kyoto and Edo, his print series, Fifty-three Stages of the Tokaido, demonstrated his own unique style, which captures a location’s essence in a poetic, yet accessible manner. Hiroshige’s landscapes, which embodied Japan’s beauty in both its human and natural worlds, contributed to popularity of travel in Japan and became ingrained into the world’s consciousness.
Later in his life, in 1856, Hiroshige began the publication of his series, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. His successor, Hiroshige II, completed the popular series in 1859 after Hiroshige passed away in 1858. While designing the prints of the series, Hiroshige referred to the travel guide Edo meisho zue, written by Saito Yukio and illustrated by Hasegawa Settan. The seven-volume guide accurately describes and depicts Edo’s historical, spiritual, and commercial sites as well as its various landscapes.
From the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, “New Year's Eve Foxfires at Nettle Tree Oji” was the series’ only fantasy print. In line with the god Inari’s association with rice and foxes, the print depicts travelling foxes from all over the Kanto region, whose fires were used by farmers to predict the coming rice harvest. An important stop on their New Year’s Eve journey to the Oji Inari Shrine, the Inari cult’s headquarters, the foreground’s nettle tree served as a place where the foxes could properly enrobe themselves for their visit to the shrine. Mentioned in Edo writings since the 17th century, these foxfires most likely explained the natural phenomenon of glowing of fungi or the burning of swamp gases.
By altering line drawing into color, Hiroshige creates an appropriate atmosphere for this supernatural moment. With the bokashi, varying gradations of gray, mica on the tree branches in the print’s black, and green accents on the hay and on the pine tree, Hiroshige expressively conveys the event. These dark colors fittingly contrast the foxes’ pale bodies illuminated by flames, given that Inari’s foxes were known to be white. In addition, the individual red bokashi at bases of the flames in the foreground and the stars in the night sky are particularly striking and contribute to the print’s sense of wonder.
Compositionally, the print is based on an illustration from Edo meisho zue with an aged nettle tree in front of a pine tree. However, Hiroshige adds another element of drama to his print’s composition with the addition of a dark forest and another group of foxes approaching the tree in the background, effectively depicted through Western vanishing point perspective. The subject matter of the background resonates with foreground’s own foxes and hackberry and pine trees. Unlike early ukiyo-e of the pleasure quarters, which used literal diagonal lines to add drama, this print’s dramatic diagonal is more powerfully created in the interplay between the foreground and background. Creating such interest in both in background and foreground was characteristic of Hiroshige’s landscapes.
Isabella Ramos, Scripps College 2017
On mat in pencil: Hiroshige 100 Views of Edo, #118, New Year's Eve Foxfires Jo X 87. Censor's seal: Aratama and date seal (Mi-kyu).
Nishiki-e, vertical oban; colored ink on paper.
Color woodblock print with an image of a large bare tree, at night, surrounded by animals.
Both in technique and expression, this haunting masterpiece is a unique achievement in the history of Japanese woodblock prints, providing a fitting conclusion for the series as a whole. Although it is conventionally included among the "best three", it really falls into a class of its own. In particular, it is the only print in the entire series that involves fantasy. In the late 1850s, when this print appeared, the world of Japanese color prints was in fact dominated by themes of the fantastic, but the aging Hiroshige held fast to his ingrained reliance on the certainties of the observed world. Here alone he ventured into the world of spirits.
The theme depicted had been widely reported in Edo essays and gazetteers since the mid-seventeenth century. It was said that on New Year's Eve, all the foxes of the eight Kanto provicnces would gather at a particular tree near Oji Inari Shrine, the headquarters of the regional Inari cult. There they would change their dress to become presentable for a visit to the shrine, where they would be given orders for the coming year. On the way, the way, they gave forth distincitive flames (kitsunebi) by which local farmers were able to predict the crops of the coming year - some say by the shadows they cast, others by their numbers. It is an interesting coincidence that the word "foxfire" exists in English as a literal translation of kitsunebi. Although the cultural nuances differ, both words were used to explain strange lights at night, such as the burning of swamp gases or the glow of luminescent fungi, and both were ascribed to the fox, the animal that in both East and West, fools people.
Hiroshige did not conceive of this particular view on his own: he clearly relied on a composition in the Edo meisho zue (vol. V), which shows a similar old hackberry tree (enoki), backed by a pine. (Ota Nampa reported in an essay in Hitomotogusa of 1806 that the tree in question was a pine before it became a hackberry.) Haystacks are also shown to one side, and foxes gambol about below, puffing flames into the air. Yet Hiroshige utterly transformed the conception, first of all by rendering a line drawing into color. The printing of the blackness is a technical triumph involving different shades of gray, several bokashi, and mica on the bare branches. There are key touches of green: on the pine behind to the left, in overprinting on the haystacks, and at the tips of the trees in the distance to the right.
The expression of light is every bit as skilful as that of darkness. Scattered stars twinkle above the stark tree. The foxes themselves are printed in a pale flesh color that offers just the right contrast, and individual red bokashi are cast at the base of the yellow flames of the sixteen foxes in the foreground. In the distance, looking closely, we can make out the flames of sixty-odd more foxes approaching the tree through the fields, the farthest just tiny specks - yet each carefully carved and printed.
The overall effect is mysterious and yet in no way truly fantastic. Compared to the Edo meisho zue view, the foxes here have a poise and dignity that suggests the solemnity of the annual occasion. We are reminded that although foxes had supernatural powers to the Japanese, they were also familiar animals, commonly seen in the city of Edo and specially numerous in the Oji district. In this print, the flames coming from foxes' mouths are undeniably haunting, but the tree and background are realistic. Such a tree actually existed, about 400 yards due east of Oji Inari shrine, which is the green crested mound of trees at the distant right.
The Changing Tree survives today. The hackberry of Hiroshige's day died in the mid-Meiji period, according to a sign at the place, and its stump was preserved in a small shrine. In April 1945, a firebombing raid threatened to destroy the area, but the flames came no farther than this point. After the war, the grateful residents set up a proper shrine and planted a new tree. It can be seen today at Shozoku Inari Shrine, on the southeast corner of Oji 2-30.
Uoei (Uo-ya Eikichi) seal.
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