spacer 12
VJP title
Utamaro print showing


spacer 16

Tragic Lovers (Kitagawa Utamaro)


Utamaro_me_chubei.jpg Stories of lovers involved in domestic tragedies were among the principal themes of romantic passion in Japanese printmaking. These scandalous tales typically involved conflicts between social obligations (giri) and personal emotions (ninjô). Such stories, often freely adapted from actual events, were widely popular on the puppet and kabuki stages, as well as in ballads, broadsheets, oral recitatives, and illustrated fiction.

The couples in these stories faced intransigent opposition to their liaisons from family and society, and as a result they frequently brought upon themselves inconsolable suffering and often faced insurmountable obstacles. Many stories involved shinjû ("inside the heart," but signifying "double suicide"). Without a way to escape or to legitimize their love, or having committed crimes to keep their love alive, they ultimately chose to die together rather than live apart. These were extraordinary couples, and the Japanese public was fascinated by such tales of reckless love.

Utamaro kanjiIn the late 1790s Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) introduced a new approach for the depiction of tragic lovers. His innovative compositions were constructed with an pictorial vocabulary that set his prints apart from earlier ukiyo-e artists. Utamaro's emphasis on the emotional and psychological aspects of these characters and their stories represented an important development in printmaking when realism was increasingly reflected in the arts and literature of the period.

Early ukiyo-e printmakers designed overwhelmingly in the full-length format, which by its nature introduced some distance between the viewer and the figures. This distance was both physical and psychological, and it partly diminished the emotional impact of the figures. In contrast, Utamaro designed around 120 single-sheet prints depicting tragic lovers, and many were in the close-up okubi-e ("large-head") format, which introduced far greater intimacy and brought emotion close to the picture surface by zooming in on the head and shoulders of the figures.

The print shown here is from a series titled Fûryû aikyô kurabe ("Fashionable Comparisons of Charming Lovers") published circa 1800-1802. There are five known prints from this group, each depicting a pair of famous lovers from the theatrical stage. The publisher's seal at the middle right has not been definitively identified but appears to be that of Izumiya Ichibei. The print is in aiban format measuring roughly 35 x 22 cm (thus slightly smaller than the ôban format). Unfortunately, the print is stained from moisture damage, although the surviving pigments are still suggestive of the original color palette.

The lovers' names, Umegawa and Chûbei, are inscribed at the upper left. Chûbei, aged 24, was a courier who stole money from a client to ransom his lover, the low-ranking courtesan Umegawa, aged 22. They fled and went into hiding, but were eventually captured and executed (or in some theatrical versions, they committed double suicide). The tale was particularly well known because Japan's greatest Edo-period playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), wrote an influential puppet play about the lovers, which was titled Meido no hikyaku ("The Courier for Hell"), first performed at the Takemoto theater in Osaka on April 22, 1711. It was based on a notorious event that actually took place in late 1710 (but whose details are now lost). In the play the narrator prepares the story's ending by referring to the lovers as birds caught in a snare and declaring that they were doomed not to escape.

Utamaro depicted his lovers using his own "portrait" style. The faces were not actual likenesses (nigao), but rather were drawn with a goal toward displaying their emotional state, thus a different kind of "likeness." What the Japanese of the period called ninjô ("human feelings") was, in fact, the central theme of these prints, despite the fashionable clothing and pleasing facial typologies.

Utamaro also incorporated three pictorial devices that he and other artists used repeatedly to depict tragic lovers. First, Umegawa and Chûbei lean slightly forward as they walk, for they are on a journey (called the michiyuki or "road going"). In these stories the 'michiyuki' often took the form of either an attempt to escape or a final secret journey as the lovers traveled toward some chosen destination where they would commit double suicide. Second, they press close together as they share a single umbrella (the act was called aiaigasa, or "sharing-together umbrella"), which represented a public display of their passionate love. Third, they wear headscarves to hide their identities while traveling. (Umegawa also bites down on her scarf in a conventional gesture of suppressed emotion.) Utamaro's print offers an intimate portrait of wayward lovers who fail to resolve the destructive complications of their illicit love. For the viewer of Utamaro's day this double portrait would have resonated with the tragic romanticism made popular on the theatrical stage. ©1999-2002 by John Fiorillo

See Goyo-Utamaro and Utamaro and the Physiognomists for other examples of Utamaro's work.

See Kiyonaga degatari-zû for another example of shinjû.


  • Asano, Shûgô and Clark, Timothy: The Passionate Art of Utamaro. London: British Museum, 1995, vol. 1, pp. 182, 193-198, 202-203, 211-213, and 224; and figs. 263, 294-306, 321-323, 344-349, and 381-382.
  • Fiorillo, John: "Poetry, Emotion, and Form in Utamaro's 'Tôsei koika hakkei'," in: Andon. no. 52, 1995, Society for Japanese Arts, Leiden, pp. 5-17.
  • Fiorillo, John. "Tragedy and Laughter in the Floating World: 'Shinjû' in the Works of Utamaro and Kyôden," in: Andon, no. 54, 1996, Society for Japanese Arts, Leiden, pp. 3-23.
  • Fiorillo, John. "Utamaro's Syntax of Affection for Tragic Lovers." Ukiyo-e Society of America Bulletin, Spring 2000, pp. 1-8.
  • Hillier, Jack: Utamaro: Colour Prints and Paintings. London: Phaidon, 1961, pp. 112, figs. 70, 72, 74, and plate XIII.
spacer 16
Viewing Japanese Prints
Designed & Written by John Fiorillo
Site launched 1999
All texts and pictures are copyright © (All Rights Reserved)
and may not be reproduced without permission.