Narihira's Journey to the East

Kitagawa Utamaro Japanese

Not on view

The ninth chapter of The Tales of Ise is the most famous of the work and one of the mast frequently illustrated passages in Japanese literature. Narihira has lost all will to continue his worldly life in the capital and, in a disconsolate mood, leaves home with one or two close friends in search of a peaceful existence in the eastern provinces.

Illustrators most often represented the moment during this Azuma kudari, or journey to the east, when the dispirited travelers pass the foot of Mount Fuji. Supposedly, this is the subject of the two triptychs here, but the two Edo artists had no qualms about abandoning the themes of loneliness and disillusionment that color the description of the journey in The Tales of Ise. In these mitate, or contemporary parodies of classical subjects, the small, gloomy group of travelers becomes an excuse for mounting a glamorous pageant of beautiful Edo-period women wearing the finest of contemporary fashions. So unconcerned are these artists with a faithful rendition of the story that even the romantic hero, Narihira himself, is represented as a pretty girl showing off her fine clothes. The triptych on the left by Utamaro represents a much more advanced form of ukiyo-e. Utamaro has removed all extraneous scenery from the composition so as to focus on Mount Fuji and the figures, which, cropped at the waist, are thrust into the viewer's space. Thus, the elaborate coiffures and headpieces and the bold decorative patterns of the garments seem to surround the viewer with a whirl of activity.

Narihira's Journey to the East, Kitagawa Utamaro (Japanese, ca. 1754–1806), Triptych of woodblock prints; ink and color on paper, Japan

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