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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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Eishôsai Chôki (栄松齋長喜)


Eishôsai Chôki (栄松齋長喜), active 1760s - early 1800s, was a notable figure 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 by 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 obscuring a different truth below the surface.

Chôki (長喜), who also signed as Shikô (子興), has long puzzled many scholars who find alongside various pleasing but partly derivative prints a small number of widely recognized masterworks that are unsurpassed by the best bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画) from the brush of any ukiyo-e master. Among the most charming designs is Chôki's portrayal of two bijin smoking long kiseru (smoking pipes: 烟管) while enjoying moon-viewing on a warm evening. During the Temmei era (天明時代 1/1781 -1/1789), kiseru became one of the most important items for displaying iki (taste and sophistication: 粋 or 粹) among the chônin (townspeople: 町人). Temmei was one of the peak eras of the chônin culture, signaling the cultural supremacy of Edo, which by this period had absorbed the influences of Osaka and Kyoto and was beginning to assert its own more elaborately mannered version of urbanity. Chôki nicely captures this ethos. The gesture of the young woman leaning over as she places the hizara (bowl of the pipe: 火皿) into the hi-ire (small vessel with embers used to light the tobacco: 火入れ) and daintily inhales the smoke is worthy of Utamaro's closely observed poses.

Of special importance were Chôki's four compositions with mica backgrounds published by Tsutaya Jûzaburô around the mid-1790s, such as the portrayal of a young beauty viewing a sunrise on a cold New Year's day (see image below left). The glistening dark-mica sky evokes early morning light, while the auspicious fukujusô (adonis or pheasant's eye flower: 福寿草) next to the stone basin and wooden dipper announce that it is the New Year. The woman's striped robes speak of the restrained style of iki that was then an Edo fashion. A second justly admired masterpiece by Chôki is shown below right. A young woman, dressed in a light robe for a summer evening, holds an insect cage while a little boy attempts to capture fireflies with his fan and hand. They stand near a stream where irises bloom. The charming scene evokes an idyllic pasttime with fireflies glowing against a sumi-black sky overprinted with mica.

Choki fireflies
Chôki: New Year's sunrise, mid-1790s
Published by Tsutaya Jûzaburô
Chôki: Catching fireflies, mid-1790s
Published by Tsutaya Jûzaburô

Finally, the image below right, published by Tsuruya Kiemon circa mid-1790s, is one of those rare prints that tells us a great deal more than usual about the real lives of the courtesans portrayed in ukiyo-e, even those from the upper ranks of the pleasure-woman hierarchies. It is titled Takao zange no dan ("Scene: Confession of Takao"), which also comes from a melody using the same words. The lineage of eleven courtesans named "Takao" who were ranked supremely as tayû ("great persons": 太夫), a title used only until the late 1750s, 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: 伊達競阿國戯場) 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 (although 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 pursuing 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, they were — compared to the vast majority of the commoners — indentured sexual servants forced to endure male predation.

Chôki was one of several ukiyo-e designers who portrayed the celebrated Takao. Against a yellow background, she adjusts a hairpin in her elegant coiffure while emptying the bowl of a fashionable kiseru she is unable to smoke by tapping the rim of the bamboo cylindrical container called a hai-otoshi ("falling ashes": 灰落し). 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. 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 other women's hearts, but she was also a person whose life and body were not entirely her own. © 2001-2019 by John Fiorillo


  • 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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