Mountains Upon Mountains
Another newly acquired Japanese ehon (picture book) in the Marquand Library collection is Katsushika Hokusai’s beautiful Ehon kyōka yama mata yama [Picture Book of Comic Poems: Mountains Upon Mountains], dated 1804. Filled with humorously ironic kyōka poetry and charming views of the capital city, this three-volume set focuses on the leisure activities of everyday urban life—cherry blossom viewing, tea drinking, and visiting temples and shrines.
Although specific locations are only hinted at in the poetry in Ehon kyōka yama mata yama, the overall setting is Yamanote [“Towards the Mountains”], a district of northeast Edo (Tokyo) that was inhabited by the military aristocracy and their families during the Edo period (1603-1868). The title Mountains upon Mountains is a satiric reference to this area which is, in reality, only slightly hilly.
Hokusai sold the “Sori” name to a pupil in 1802, but Ehon kyōka yama mata yama (1804) is considered a late example of what has been termed by art historians as Hokusai’s “Sori-style.” Like Itako zekkushū (see past blog entry), published two years earlier, it features the tall willowy women in elegant dress that were the hallmark of the “Sori” phase of the artist’s work. It is not surprising that the latest fashion trends were often disseminated through popular illustrated books like Ehon kyōka yama mata yama.
Hokusai signed his work with one of two names in 1804 when this book was published: Tatsumasa and Gakyōjin. The preface indicates that the illustrations were indeed done by Gakyōjin (meaning “the man mad about drawing”). This preface, located at the beginning of the first volume, was written by Benbenkan Koryū (1756-1815), the leader of the Yamanote-ren Poetry Circle. Daigentei Sumikata selected the kyōka for the book and wrote the closing note, which appears at the end of the third volume.
It will be almost thirty years before Hokusai creates his first designs featuring views of Mount Fuji, but it is in these early 19th century book illustrations that we see the first interest in place as subject matter. The focus here, however, is still on people and their activities, which are made all the more interesting with the artist’s addition of things like Western telescopes, ferocious Buddhist sculptures, and humorous peasants.
The woodblocks for this book still exist. They were brought to the Netherlands in 1830 and are in the possession of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.