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VJP title Utamaro print showing

 

 

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Eishosai Chôki
(active 1760s - early 1800s)

 

Choki kanji Eishôsai Chôki has earned a notable reputation in the history of ukiyo-e, although he produced a small body of work and an even smaller number of highly admired masterpieces. He was a pupil of Toriyama Sekien (as was Kitagawa Utamaro), and some critics find that Chôki was influenced by Nishikawa Harunobu and Torii Kiyonaga, and later Utamaro and Chôbunsai Eishi. There is, nevertheless, a mannerism all his own that invests Chôki's figures with a curious contentment: their faces are alert, almost smiling, seemingly pleased with themselves or their situations, though at times probably obscuring a different truth underneath the surface (see below). Chôki, who also signed as Shikô, created some of the widely recognized icons in Japanese print design, in particular a small number of compositions with mica backgrounds. These depicted such subjects as a young mother and her small boy catching fireflies, a beauty holding an umbrella while a servant replaces a sandal fallen from her foot into the snow, a young woman looking happily to her left as she raises her kimono sleeve, and a beauty standing before the sea and a rising sun.

The image on the right, published by Tsuruya Kiemon circa mid-1790s, is titled Takao zange no dan ("Scene: Confession of Takao"). The lineage of eleven courtesans named "Takao" who were ranked supremely as tayû ("great persons") was a famous one among the aficionados of the pleasure quarters in Tokugawa Japan. A complex interweaving of history and legend augmented the fame of the Takao name.

Historically, it appears that the daimyô of Mutsu province, Date Tsunamune, was a patron of the second Takao to take the name at the Miura brothel in Yoshiwara, Edo. Although Takao II probably died at age 19 in 1659 from an illness such as tuberculosis or pneumonia, fictionalized stories appeared afterwards linking her death to the real-life disputed succession of the Date clan and even to murder by Tsunamune (after, so the legend went, Takao tried to take her life rather than be ransomed by him). Eventually there were songs, novels, and plays retelling the story in myriad ways. One famous kabuki play depicted "Takao" as a courtesan who was the mistress of Ashikaga Yorikane in the play Date kurabe okuni kabuki ("Competition of the Date Clan in Okuni Kabuki") first performed at the Nakamura Theater, Edo, in 1778. In this drama, Takao was murdered by an ally of Yorikane because the latter would not leave his beloved Takao to seek escape from the enemies of the Ashikaga shogun. Takao later reappeared as an avenging spirit.

The inscription on the book-page cartouche at the top right of Chôki's design mentions Takao's difficulty in drawing in the smoke from her pipe, her throat constricted from a sorrowful night "passed in weeping" as a woman made miserable by exposure "to all men's eyes." It is, in effect, one of the uncommon (though not rare) admissions encountered in ukiyo-e prints and paintings in which the artist explicitly recognizes the degradation in a courtesan's life. The portrayal of women in ukiyo-e was, after all, primarily targeted toward men who were buying fantasies.

There were, of course, elements of truth in the glorification of these women, and there were certainly female patrons of ukiyo-e. Yet no matter how privileged were the lives of the highest ranking courtesans, such as the tayû (a courtesan rank more or less defunct in Edo by the 1750s), they were — compared to the vast majority of the commoners — indentured sexual servants forced to endure "all men's eyes."

Chôki's print tells us this. Against a striking yellow background, Takao fixes a hair pin in her elegant coiffure while she empties the bowl of the fashionable pipe she is unable to smoke. She is portrayed in the Chôki style, straight back and simple curves, with an air of contentment on the refined surface. Her posture is rigidly vertical, counterbalanced by the calligraphic sweep of the robes "pooling" below. Yet the book's inscription tells us of her emotional life, the private torment, beneath the surface. Perhaps Chôki meant that both readings were "true" — Takao was a woman of accomplishment and beauty who turned men's heads and caused envy in women's hearts, but she was also a person whose life and body were not her own. © 2001 by John Fiorillo

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Hiller, J.: 'Choki: What is a Minor Artist?', In: The Japanese Print: A New Approach. Rutland: Tuttle, 1960, pp. 94-101 and figs. 33-36.
  • Leiter, S.: The New Kabuki Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 74-75.
  • Seigle, C.: Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993, pp. 58-61.
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