Hiroshige, Master of Japanese Woodblock Prints, Creates a Guide to Making Shadow Puppets for Children (1842)

Even if the name Uta­gawa Hiroshige does­n’t ring a bell, “Hiroshige” by itself prob­a­bly does. And on the off chance that you’ve nev­er heard so much as his mononym, you’ve still almost cer­tain­ly glimpsed one of his por­tray­als of Tokyo — or rather, one of his por­tray­als of Edo, as the Japan­ese cap­i­tal, his home­town, was known dur­ing his life­time. Hiroshige lived in the 19th cen­tu­ry, the end of the clas­si­cal peri­od of ukiyo‑e, the art of wood­block-print­ed “pic­tures of the float­ing world.” In that time he became one of the for­m’s last mas­ters, hav­ing cul­ti­vat­ed not just a high lev­el of artis­tic skill but a for­mi­da­ble pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.

In total, Hiroshige pro­duced more than 8,000 works. Some of those are account­ed for by his well-known series of prints like The Fifty-three Sta­tions of the Tōkaidō, The Six­ty-nine Sta­tions of the Kisokaidō, One Hun­dred Famous Views of Edo. But his mas­tery encom­passed more than the urban and rur­al land­scapes of his home­land, as evi­denced by this much hum­bler project: a set of omocha‑e, or instruc­tion­al pic­tures for chil­dren, explain­ing how to make shad­ow pup­pets.

Hiroshige explains in clear and vivid images “how to twist your hands into a snail or rab­bit or grasp a mat to mim­ic a bird perched on a branch,” writes Colos­sal’s Grace Ebert. “Appear­ing behind a translu­cent sho­ji screen, the clever fig­ures range in dif­fi­cul­ty from sim­ple ani­mals to spar­ring war­riors and are com­plete with prop sug­ges­tions, writ­ten instruc­tions for mak­ing the crea­tures move — ‘open your fin­gers with­in your sleeve to move the owl’s wings’ or ‘draw up your knee for the fox’s back’ — and guides for full-body con­tor­tions.” The dif­fi­cul­ty curve does seem to rise rather sharply, begin­ning with pup­pets requir­ing lit­tle more than one’s hands and end­ing with full-body per­for­mances sure­ly intend­ed more for amuse­ment than imi­ta­tion.

But then, kids take their fun wher­ev­er they find it, whether in 2021 or in 1842, when these images were orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished. Though it was a fair­ly late date in the life of Hiroshige, at that time mod­ern Japan had­n’t even begun to emerge. The chil­dren who enter­tained them­selves with his shad­ow pup­pets against the sho­ji screens of their homes would have come of age with the arrival of Unit­ed States Com­modore Matthew C. Per­ry’s “black ships,” which began the long-closed Japan’s process of re-open­ing itself to world trade — and set off a whirl­wind of civ­i­liza­tion­al trans­for­ma­tion that, well over a cen­tu­ry and a half lat­er, has yet to set­tle down.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 1,000+ Beau­ti­ful Wood­block Prints by Hiroshige, the Last Great Mas­ter of the Japan­ese Wood­block Print Tra­di­tion

1,000+ His­toric Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed Books Dig­i­tized & Put Online by the Smith­son­ian: From the Edo & Meji Eras (1600–1912)

Wagashi: Peruse a Dig­i­tized, Cen­turies-Old Cat­a­logue of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Can­dies

The Ground­break­ing Sil­hou­ette Ani­ma­tions of Lotte Reiniger: Cin­derel­la, Hansel and Gre­tel, and More

Jim Hen­son Teach­es You How to Make Pup­pets in Vin­tage Primer From 1969

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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