Heron Maiden, 1889
Ink on Paper
14 1/2 in. x 9 7/8 in. (368.3 mm x 250.83 mm)
Note: II (p.22-23) of "Yoshitoshi's Thirty-six Ghosts." The heron maid: Once a young man rescued a wounded heron and cared for it. When he set it free, a beautiful maiden came to visit him. They married, and she wove silk brocades for him to sell, but she asked him never to watch her at the loom. When he spied on her, he saw a heron at the loom. She resumed her human form but left reluctantly. Yoshitoshi shows her departure.
On mat, in pencil: Marer 450, exhib. 11/93, Thirty-six Ghost Stories. Description on verso of mat. Artist's seal: Taiso. Signed: Yoshitoshi. Carver: Yamamoto to. Engraver: Yamamoto Printed: 10 April 1889
Colored ink woodblock on paper; oban.
Meiji period Japanese color woodblock print with an image of a woman with a large yellow and black umbrella (open) and three white birds.
The relationship of the animal kingdom to the world of human beings is close in rural societies. People feel a kinship with the wild creatures around them. As a result, birds and animals, even trees and insects, are perceived in anthropomorphic terms. This was especially true in premodern Japan, where as early as a thousand years ago the cultured Heian society had developed a consciousness and love of nature. Japan is rich in tales of animals magically taking human form to work mischief or to repay good turns that people have done them.
This design is an example. Once upon a time a young man rescued a wounded heron, cared for it, and set it free. Soon after, he met a beautiful girl. She was not from his neighborhood, indeed no one knew where she came from and she was herself vague on the subject. However, she was charming, and he quickly fell in love with her. They married and lived blissfully together for several months. She turned out to be a skillful maker of silk brocade, which he sold to support them. The only condition she asked as she gave him the brocade was that he not look at her while she was working. One day, unable to resist his curiosity, he looked into her room: of course she was the heron he had saved, and he saw her weaving at the loom in her heron form. Sorrowfully she turned into a beautiful young woman for the last time. She told him that she had been happy as a human being but could only live with him as long as he was unaware of her nonhuman nature. Although she meant him nothing but good, she was now bound to fly away and leave him forever.
The print is as tranquil as the story, the maiden standing quietly with her umbrella in the snow, motioning to a pair of sister herons. Her brocade robe and the birds' feathers have been given a raised texture. This is called kata-zuri, "empty" or inkless printing, an extra step in the printmaking process in which a pattern is permanently embossed into areas of the paper. The technique is often referred to as gaufrage (waffling), a reminder that many of the earliest ukiyo-e scholars were French.
The dance-drama Sagi Musume of 1762 was based on this folk tale. Harunobu, the artist credited with inventing multicolored woodblock prints, used the story, in a famous design of a girl walking with an umbrella in the snow, to represent winter in his series "Beauties of the Four Seasons" of 1767.
Stevenson, John. Thirty-Six Ghosts. Hong Kong: Blue Tiger Books, 1992.
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