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VJP title Utamaro print showing



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Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725-1770)


Harunobu kanjiSuzuki Harunobu (active c. 1760-1770) is celebrated for his ethereal female figures, winsome in demeanor and fragile of substance. His idealized beauties, many of them courtesans, were very popular in his day, and his style of depicting women dominated bijinga ("pictures of beautiful women") from 1765 to 1770. Harunobu is also closely associated with the introduction of the earliest full-color woodblock prints, although he was not the first to use a full-color palette in printmaking. The methods required to produce pigments compatible with woodblock color printing and the techniques needed to print several colors with correct registration were the results of developments between the 1620s and the 1740s. Recent evidence now suggests that Katsukawa Shunshô (1726-1792) designed full-color prints in the second month of 1764, which would have preceded by more than a year Harunobu's earliest known examples from the summer of 1765. Nevertheless, Harunobu's genius extended well beyond the application of color to his designs. The year 1765 was indeed a watershed year with the appearance of Harunobu's earliest full-color prints, and by the following year one of the glorious sets of ukiyo-e prints appeared in a privately issued edition, his Zashiki hakkei ("Eight Parlor Views"). In these prints we can observe the sophistication and wit that makes Harunobu's art stand out from the rest of his contemporaries.

The two illustrations shown here depict a scene interpreted in the manner of mitate-e ("analogy pictures"). In the play Ômu Komachi ("Parrot Komachi"), the councilor Yukiie delivers a poem composed by the retired Emperor Yôzei for the great poet Ono no Komachi, now 100 years old and living a life of seclusion.

The poem asks Komachi whether she recalls her time spent long ago at his palace. She replied by simply requesting that Yukiie repeat the Emperor’s poem while changing only one character, which transformed the Emperor’s question into a strong affirmation of Komachi’s fond remembrance of her visit. When questioned by the surprised envoy about the existence of such a practice in classical poetry, Komachi answered that it was a type of Japanese poem called ômu-gaeshi ("parrot- replies").

Harunobu transposed the Ômu Komachi legend into an episode involving a modern-day exchange of love letters, a common activity in the lives of Edo-period courtesans and a popular subject in ukiyo-e. Komachi is now transfigured as a charming courtesan who hands a letter to her kamuro (a courtesan in training between 7-14 years of age) who takes the place of the envoy Yukiie in this mitate. The courtesan whispers something to the kamuro, perhaps either an additional message to be repeated to a lover or instructions about delivering the love note.

The close parallelism of the figures’ heads and shoulders is a compositional device used to suggest intimacy that is encountered in various designs by Harunobu. The gentle placement of her hand on her kamuro's shoulder and the bending and twisting of their bodies toward one other also support the feeling of closeness and secrecy. The painting of a parrot behind them provides an obvious reference to the Komachi Omû legend.

The print on the left is in the hosoban format issued circa 1766-67. It is one of a series titled Fûryû yatsushi Nana Komachi ("Fashionable Seven Komachi Transformed") that were mitate of the famous seven legends about the great poet. These designs by Harunobu were apparently quite popular, for there are various states and editions. For example, the present design was issued in at least six different forms: (1) in 1766 as a signed chûban calendar print (among Harunobu's earliest full-color designs); (2) as a chûban without signature or calendrical numbers; (3); as an unsigned hosoban with poem and series title; (4) as a signed hosoban; (5) circa 1767-69 as an hashira-e ("pillar print") — see the example on the right; and (6) as a signed chûban without poem or series title. The rectangular cartouche on the illustrated hashira-e contains the series title Fûryû nana Komachi ("Fashionable Seven Komachi") and print title Ômu ("parrot"). The square poem-card (shikishiban) cartouche contains Komachi’s response to the emperor: Kumo no ue wa / arishi mukashi ni / kawaranedo / mishi tamadare no / uchi zo yukashiki. The poem mentions Yôzei's "cloud-capped palace" where she lived many years before and which she finds has not changed. Thus she remembers her association with Yôzei with fondness, expressed through the simple technique of changing only one character in the emperor's poem. © 2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Clark, T. and Ueda, O.: The Actor’s Image: Print makers of the Katsukawa School. Art Institute of Chicago, 1994, p. 94.
  • Fiorillo, J.: "Refashioning the Legends of Komachi in Mitate-e." Andon, Society for Japanese Arts, 1999, no. 63; 17-30.
  • Hiller, J.: Suzuki Harunobu. A Selection of His Color Prints and Illustrated Books. Philadelphia Museum of Arts, 1970.
  • Waterhouse, D.: Harunobu and His Age: The Development of Colour Printing in Japan. London: British Museum, 1964.
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