06/05/2013 08:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Hipster Brooklyn of Old Japan

Hand-Held: Gerhard Pulverer's Japanese Illustrated Books, on view at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery until August 11, presents a collection of beautiful hand-made books from 18th and 19th century Japan illustrated with wood-block prints that are as stylish and imaginative as today's best graphic novels. Not only are the little books a sight to see, the exhibit opens a window on the Edo Era, a world of artists and craftsmen in pre-modern Japan with a surprising link to our electronic age.

Here's the story: In 1600, the Japanese military leader Tokugawa Ieyasu crowned a lifetime of battlefield victories and diplomatic triumphs by winning the battle of Sekigahara, then the biggest and most important military victory in Japanese history. Three years later Ieyasu established the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal system of government that ruled Japan for the next 250 years, known as the Edo Period for the name of its ruling city, later (and better) known as Tokyo.

The Edo Era produced transformations a Brooklyn hipster would take for granted. Ieyasu may not have favored trucker hats and artisanal gelato, but his feudal system concentrated wealth and power among a ruling elite and moved artists, craftsmen, and merchants into urban centers. At the same time, technology lowered the costs of artistic production. In literature, for example, the shift from brush painting to block printing enabled the mass production of images. As the introductory text to Hand-Held explains, such forces "transformed Japan in the seventeenth century much as electronic media has altered communication around the world."


As mass popular culture took root in Japan, people traveled to yukaku, or pleasure districts, to enjoy an urban lifestyle known as ukiyo or "the floating world." The most prominent of these latter-day bohemian enclaves was Yoshiwara. It was the center of Edo Era culture, the Hipster Brooklyn of old Japan.

Among the cultural and hedonistic pleasures on offer in Yoshiwara and other yukaku (music, storytelling, kabuki theater, geisha girls, puppetry, poetry, literature, and art) were shops selling small cartoon books printed from finely styled woodcuts. The books, which were only slightly larger than an iPhone, were produced on paper so delicate as to be transparent, and featured texts illustrated by vibrant, enchanting drawings.


Hand-Held presents a beautiful collection of these early Manga cartoon books. Their graceful and accessible style has a surprisingly contemporary feel. Times and technology may change, but great art looks familiar to the inhabitants of any age. I visited the exhibit twice, and both times was spirited away by these magical yet somehow recognizable images from another world and time. It was like being at an 18th century Japanese zinefest.

The books display elaborate battle scenes, warriors slaying monsters, beautiful women receiving visitors, philosophers gazing on serene landscapes, courtesans relaxing between appointments, and portraits of kabuki actors, all drawn in light strokes and with a touch of charm. The spirit in the work lives on in the modern age. There is a tall oak in a print by Mizushima Nihofu, for example, that looks like it belongs in a painting by Van Gogh. In the oversized, partly self-referential, hanging scroll Women Airing Books and Clothes, by Katsukawa Shunsho, two women dry freshly-printed pages on a line as a third binds the pages and a fourth, who has become distracted, reads the finished product. The Tenzopan shokei ichiran, by Yashima Gakutei, presents a typically breathtaking scene of a galleon, under full sail and a yellow moon, navigating a trough between two towering, breaking waves.

Hand-Held illustrates other parallels between the Edo Era and our own, including the fact that the publishing world favored vertical integration, with distribution, sales, and marketing handled by a single business, as if Amazon's anti-competitive business model had been imported into shogunal Japan. The pornographic books, which are displayed in a recessed alcove, are as lascivious and grotesque as anything available on the internet. There is even a print of a wide canal in Yokohama (yes, it even looks a little like the Gowanus), in which, among the strolling residents and the rickshaw drivers, there is a character who seems to be taking notes on a pad he holds before him, perhaps for his own small, descriptive piece he intends to write up and pass around.

Some things never change.