Taninaka Yasunori (谷中安規), 1897-1946, was born in Nara prefecture. His mother died in 1903, and the following year his father moved to Korea and opened a food store in Gyeongju, South Korea. Taninaka returned to Tokyo in 1915 where he attended a Buddhist middle school (Buzan school 豊山派 of the Shingon sect, 真言宗), although eventually he had to withdraw due to lack of financial support and illness. For a time he was involved with the Hase-dera in Nara (奈良の長谷寺), the main temple also run by the Buzan sect. Otherwise, Taninaka led a Bohemian existence for much of his life, never marrying, periodically taking on odd jobs, and always working on his art and writing (he had some poetry published as early as 1919). Some saw him as a tragic yet often light-hearted figure who occasionally had manic episodes (his productivity, for example, skyrocketed in the years 1932-33).
Taninaka first encountered printmaking in 1922 through Nagase Yoshio's (永瀬義郎 1891-1978) instruction manual "To People Who Want to Make Prints" (Hanga o tsukuru hito e: 版画を作る人へ), which numbered 231 pages. Soon after, he began making woodcuts. It should be noted, however, that Taninaka had made brush drawings much earlier, starting when he was young. For instance, he made a small drawing of potato leaves 芋の葉 and added a long inscription, dated to 1906 by the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (Inv. #D00004.) In 1926 he and some former fellow students and friends (Ueda Harunosuke, 上田治之助 and Iida Shôichi, 飯田正一) published two issues of a magazine called Môro monyô (words taken from a Shingon Sutra because Taninaka liked their sound). Then, in 1927, he had some lessons with Nagase. By the following year, he began exhibiting woodcuts with the Creative Print Association (Nihon Sôsaku-Hanga Kyôkai: 日本創作版画協会). It was through that society that he first met Onchi Kôshirô, Maekawa Senpan, Hiratsuka Un'ichi, and other sôsaku hanga ("creative print": 創作版画) artists.
Onchi thought that Taninaka's works were concerned with the world of fantasy and that stylistically they were like illustrations for children (dôga: 童画). He further wrote that Taninaka's works were "medieval" and had a supernatural emphasis. (See Onchi and Ueda refs.) Critics often point out that Taninaka's prints were expressions of the collective modern psyche such as it was between the world wars, with its longings, imaginings, alienations, and anxieties. He broke through the boundary of strict realism to present images that blended his dreams or fantasy life with particular commentaries on the culture of his time. Moreover, themes of childhood innocence frequently appear, sometimes in conflict with the world's evil or a fantastical netherworld populated by devils. It often seems that Taninaka was continually searching for a path toward a metaphorical Paradise. He did not shy away from incorporating Western imagery or iconography; often, his themes were not limited to those entirely explained by Japanese culture, but rather emerged from an unbound international zeitgeist leading up to World War II. For example, Taninaka's work was influenced by the Expressionist tendencies of his teacher Nagase's style (who in turn had absorbed something of the Norwegian Edvard Munch, 1863-1944).
One of Taninaka's best known prints is shown at the top of this page, a small woodcut titled "Man exhaling a butterfly" (Chô o haku hito: 蝶を吐く人) from a special issue (no. 41) in 1933 of the dôjin zasshi (coterie magazine: 同人雑誌) "White and Black (Shiro to kuro : 白と黒). Perhaps the figure is Taninaka and the butterflies expelled in his breadth are his creative works, alluding to butterflies as symbols of transformation. The version shown here, apparently a trial proof measuring 157 x 227 mm, has two figures on the far right that are trimmed off in other surviving impressions (which measure approximately 160 x 200 mm).
Taninaka also produced drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings, but more important, he worked on book illustrations, such as the children's book "The King's Back" (Osama no senaka: 王様の背中) written in 1934 by Uchida Hyakken (内田百間 1889-1971); see the examples below He collaborated as well on the novella FOU by Satô Haruo (佐藤春夫 1892-1964) in 1936 (the colophon page is shown on the right, which includes the names of the author Satô and illustrator Taninaka). He also produced illustrations for newspapers, including a serialization for "Current Events News" (Jiji Shinpô: 時事新報 founded in 1882) of Uchida Hyakken's Isorô sôsô over the course of 36 issues.
Usually, Taninaka printed mainly in monochrome or very muted tones. However, on occasion, he hand-colored his prints with vibrant colors. In 1933 the aforementioned art magazine "Black and White" devoted its issue no. 41 to Taninaka's prints. Another eight of his designs appeared in "Print Art" (Hanga geijutsu: 版芸術) in issue no. 16, July 1933 (see later discussion). Such dôjin zasshi (coterie magazines: 同人雑誌) were primary venues for Taninaka's published prints through the critical years of his career in the 1930s. He also contributed to the collaborative series "One Hundred New Views of Japan" (Shin Tokyo hyakkei: 新東京百景) in July 1940 (see below).
Taninaka's dream-world and associated narratives, while idiosyncratic, did not appear sui generis. Japan was the first Asian nation to adopt Surrealism in the arts. In 1925, just one year after the French writer and poet André Breton (1896-1966) published his seminal manifesto on Surrealism, the Japanese poet Nishiwaki Junzaburô (西脇順三郎 1894-1982), who had just returned from Europe with avant-garde ideas and texts, began introducing Surrealism to Japan. He later, in 1929, published "Poetics of Surrealism" (Chôgenjitsushugi shiron: 超現実主義詩論). That same year another Japanese poet, Kitasono Katsue (北園克衛 1902-1978), introduced the poetry of André Breton, Louis Aragon (1897-1982), and Paul Éluard (1895-1952) in the magazine "Literary Aesthetics" (Bungei tanbi: 文芸耽美). Three years later, Kitasono, and the brothers Ueda Toshio (上田敏雄 1900-1982) and Ueda Tamotsu (上田保 1906-1973), published the first Surrealist magazine in Japan, "Rose — Magic — Theory" (Bara — Majutsu — Gakusetsu: 薔薇・魔術・学説) and also wrote "A Note—December 1927" in which they proclaimed that Surrealism would be the primary inspiration for their writing. By 1930, Surrealism as a visual art movement was being widely discussed and debated in Japanese art journals and magazines. Taninaka would be, in today's lingo, an "early adopter" of Surrealism, producing memorable Surrealist-tinted images at least by 1925. No doubt, given his personality, he would have arrived on his own at some similar form of surrealist or dream-like visual language, but we can assume that he was influenced in a least some small measure by the larger currents of Surrealism.
It is said that Taninaka loved to read "Tales of Moonlight and Rain" (Ugetsu monogatari: 雨月物語) by Ueda Akinari (上田秋成 1734-1809), a collection of nine supernatural tales published in 1776. The influence of this Edo-period fiction work is difficult to assess in specific terms, but it no doubt fueled Taninaka's already-primed imagination. Among Taninaka's earliest works that navigate through his personal dream-scape are two rather bizarre prints from around 1925. They are among at least 21 small-format works from the same year, all are known under the title "Delusional" (妄想) and then appended with letter codes (A through S). On the left above, "Delusional F" (Bôsô: 妄想Ｆ) depicts a nightmarish figure whose exceptionally long, purplish red tongue is being danced upon by a nude female holding an umbrella and either a mirror or a magnifying glass. From the top of his head, he seems to be emitting a cloud form along with a sunflower. Some critics have suggested that there is a thread of disturbing (and disturbed) sexuality running through such images as this one, possibly reflecting a personal torment in Taninaka's life. On the right above, "Delusional L" (Bôsô: 妄想L), a masked woman is high-stepping on human heads partly submerged in a pool of water. On the left in the background, another human form positioned on top of a building holds a lantern whose faint light-rays radiate toward the middle of the composition. On the right, the caps of three plant forms have an anthropomorphic quality while they lean in toward the main figure as if they were curious observers of this visual fantasy.
Other early prints by Taninaka include the woodcut called "Floating Head" (Fuyû tô: 浮遊頭)) from 1927 (shown below left), the same year he began lessons with Nagase Yoshio. The carving and printing are rudimentary, but the Surrealist (or supernatural) element is more to the point, along with the playful humor. About four years later, circa 1931, Taninaka again keeps the composition simple (see below right). "High-rise Woman" or "Woman leaning against a high-rise (Imota chaku kôrô mato nyonin (倚靠着高楼的女人), presents a fanciful view of a seated giantess, seeming rather pleased with herself, who rests her left arm on the top of a four-storey building.
Taninaka illustrated a play, presumably that he had written, with a set of 13 woodcuts titled "Shadow Theater" (Kage-e shibai: 影絵芝居) published in the November 1932 issue of the aforementioned "Print Art." In the seventh scene, an artist (presumably Taninaka) is shown painting his wife when suddenly she flies away with (or is taken by) a demon bird (ma-tori: 魔鳥). The painting of the nude can be seen just right of center, while the flesh-and-blood woman, holding an umbrella, is lifted aloft through what might be a skylight in the studio. The artist, holding paintbrush and palette, looks on astonished at what he sees. Is this an illusion? Did his personal or painterly fantasy cause his wife to fly away? Is this perhaps a nightmarish fairytale about loss or abandonment? Could it be related to "Man exhaling a butterfly" in the sense that each image portrays the imaginative "flying away" of creative works?
Among Taninaka's self-portraits are the two shown below. On the left, he is singing in full voice along with a recording played on a record player. The only colors are a pale wash of pink in the background and the dark red record label. Head held back, mouth shaped like an "O" and hands gripping his kimono sash, Taninaka is throwing all he has into an effort to sing loud and clear. Unlike this cheerful and amusing woodcut, the drawing shown below right (now in the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo) is a self-portrait in a very different mode. The gaunt figure presents a savagely honest depiction in which the accurate likeness (see additional photo below) is merely the form through which Taninaka has expressed a deeper vision of his corporeal and psychological self.
In May 1933 Taninaka designed a hand-colored woodcut titled "Spring Night (Haru ya: 春夜) for issue no. 35 of the art magazine "Black and White." Here we have multiple views combined in a storyboard manner. The curator Takizawa Kyôji (滝沢恭司), interviewed on November 9, 2014 for a Taninaka retrospective (see Nakausa ref.) at the Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts explained that the central figure who holds up an umbrella and lifts his right leg to reveal a traditional high-clog (geta: 下駄) is most likely the artist himself. He glances back at a policeman in a kiosk who is holding a truncheon (perhaps he is shown here because more than once Taninaka had been detained by police and had his luggage searched). Ahead of him (left of center) are two figures wearing hats and at the upper left, and what appears to be a nude woman. This has been interpreted as Taninaka visiting a "place to play," a euphemism for "red-light district" (yûkaku: 遊郭) in Tokyo, with the nude being either an erotic image on a movie screen (the two figures in hats might therefore be in the audience) or an actual pleasure-woman ready to take on her next customer. As Taninaka loved films, it is quite possible that the first explanation was his intended meaning. This print demonstrates just how strong and expressive hand-coloring can be in Taninaka's work. Moreover, not only did he brush in colors within the image space, but he also applied a blue-green wash to the wide margins of the paper. Each surviving impression, of course, differs slightly in the application of colors.
Another example of intense color is the street scene shown below, a woodcut with brushed-on hand-coloring from 1933. The location is the Shibuya ward in Tokyo, where the Tôkyu Tôyoko Line opened in 1932, making Shibuya a key terminal between Tokyo and Yokohama, and one of the symbols of the revitalization of Tokyo within a decade of the Great Kantô Earthquake of 1923. The glow of the red illumination evokes the progress made in rebuilding the city, complete with neon lights ablaze throughout the modernist urban landscape. Traditionalists of the period thought much of the revival had taken on a vulgar countenance, but Taninaka was obviously intrigued by the changes in popular culture and new forms of architecture, commerce, art, and entertainment. This was also a time of exuberant avant garde movements that seemed to be everywhere in Tokyo during the late 1920s and early 1930s. This design is also known with red and purple coloring, as well as with shades of blue.
The eight woodcuts that Taninaka published in Hanga Geijutsu issue no. 16 were all images of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Conflict began with small-scale skirmishes followed by the invasion of Manchuria in September 1931. Hostilities gradually increased in scope until full-scale war was officially declared in 1937. Taninaka's woodcuts were printed by a process called "machine woodblock printing" (mokuhan kikai zuri: 木版機械摺) using the artist's original woodblocks mounted in a printing press. In fact, most impressions of Taninaka's prints throughout his career were machine printed. The example shown below is titled "Signal fire" (Hôka: 烽火). Flames reach skyward, serving as a beacon to the incoming aircraft. Soldiers are encamped as enemy fighter planes fly overhead. One aircraft on the right has been hit and catches fire as it plummets to earth. Another plane in the middle has left behind a long trail of billowing smoke. Two cannons can be seen at the lower right, while in the center, an officer examines a war map. The three soldiers on the left seem to be carrying heavy, high-explosive shells as they walk toward the cannons. In such a small image, Taninaka's simple forms allowed him to capture a wealth of detail.
Taninaka's sole contribution to the collaborative series "One Hundred New Views of Japan" (Shin Tokyo hyakkei: 新東京百景) was published in July 1940. It is a view of the Sumida River (Sumidagawa: 隅田川) flowing through central Tokyo, here referenced by an alternate name, Okawabata (By the Big River: 大川端). The somber evening scene shows a part of a small public garden in Hama-chô on a snowy day. Rather small figures can be seen in the middle distance: on the left someone is pulling a hand-cart, and on the right, an adult holds the hand of an playful child. The mood of the scene is set by the bleak yellow illumination interacting with a weak light grayish-blue. An original printed slip of paper accompanying the print stated that the artist Maekawa Senpan supervised the printing. By the 1940s, as the world war gripped the nation of Japan, Taninaka seems to have produced far fewer works than he had in the 1920s and 1930s.
Hiratsuka Un'ichi once said about Taninaka that, "He was like a person from another world. He came in through the entrance without a sound, like ... a shadow. He was ... open, optimistic, cheerful ... he frisked about in the reality of children's stories, dreams, imagination." (See Merritt 1990 ref.) He loved to dance spontaneously, sometimes removing his clothing to do so, even in public. He once said that he danced to fix a broken heart. He rarely seemed to settle down, apparently never having a place of his own until he was 37 years old. He often stayed in the homes of friends or fellow artists, including Nagase Yoshio's house. In 1924 he even resided on the premises of the publishing firm Daiichi Shobô (第一書房) run by Hasegawa Minokichi (長谷川巳之吉 1893-1973), who also gave him a job. It was there that Taninaka befriended the poet and novelist Satô Haruo (佐藤春夫 1892-1964), discussed earlier; the poet Hinatsu Kônosuke (日夏耿之介 1890-1971); and the writer, poet, and feminist Yosano Akiko (与謝野晶子 1878-1942). Taninaka was indifferent about his clothing or personal hygiene, and ate poorly, sometimes ingesting raw rice, chewing on garlic, or licking miso when he was hungry. After losing his house in the allied bombing of Tokyo on April 13, 1945, he lived for a time in a flooded underground bomb shelter. When the dampness caused his health to deteriorate further, he built a small hut in an open field one month before the end of the war. He planted a garden and lived off pumpkins. Barely surviving, but still resolutely cheerful, he contacted Onchi Kôshirô in August 1946 to ask for help, whereupon Onchi sent him some money. Sadly, no one seemed to realize how precarious Taninaka's health had become. On September 9, 1946 he died of malnutrition.
Taninaka was a man of contradictions. On the one hand, he was fiercely independent in living his life and creating his art, and on the other hand, naive and weak, and often dependent on the kindness of others. Loved and admired by his friends, fellow print artists, novelists, poets, and editors, Taninaka's works were nevertheless mostly ignored by the wider art establishment during his lifetime. The first stirrings of serious interest in his oeuvre took place when exhibitions were held at the Nantenshi Gallery (南天子画廊), Tokyo in 1966, and at the Kinokuniya Gallery (紀伊國屋画廊) in Shinjuku (新宿) in 1972. Finally, in May 1976, Taninaka received an institutional retrospective at the Riccar Art Museum (Rikkar Bijutsukan: リッカ美術館) in Tokyo (see ref. below). The most recent major retrospective took place in November 2014 at the Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts and the Iwate Museum of Art (see ref. below).
Today, Taninaka Yasunori's prints are rare, even those that were not self-printed. Aside from residing in a few private collections, they can be found in only a small number of public institutions such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales; British Museum, London; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; and National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.