Scholars speak regularly of Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshige as the giants of the 18th and 19th-century woodblock-printing ("ukiyoe") tradition in Japan. Even so, for legions of "ukiyoe" fans, especially those in the West, nobody can match Kuniyoshi for the complexity of his drafting, drama of his compositions, and range of subject matter. And no publisher could have outdone Hotei, a Leiden-based company, in so beautifully reproducing Kuniyoshi's work and so meticulously explaining it in both introductory essays and individual plate captions.
Robert Schaap's "Heroes and Ghosts: Japanese Prints by Kuniyoshi" is one of three volumes Hotei has issued on the work of this artist. Of the three volumes, it is most wide-ranging in scope, and therefore "Heroes and Ghosts" is the logical book with which to begin your acquantaince with Kuniyoshi. Because the book accompanied a 1998 exhibition organized by subject category, the sequencing of illustrations will not readily provide a sense of how Kuniyoshi's work evolved. Still, there is much to fascinate here, and this is a book and an artist that have so much to offer that numerous readings will not begin to exhaust the rich possibilities for drawing out new information and gaining new insights.
Because I am passionately interested in the legends and historical events that were reflected in Japanese art of the Edo period (1615-1868), my favorite section is that on "heroes;" happily this is also the most extensive segment of the book. It is just such heroic compositions for which Kuniyoshi is most famous, and these pieces offer the richest linkages between literature and art and the most action-packed of Kuniyoshi's compositions. Moreover, this body of work is notable because Kuniyoshi's manner of depicting these heroes set the style that continues to define Japanese tattooing.