To novices and connoisseurs alike, few classic ukiyo-e stand out from the stack quite as oddly as "The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety."
Looking lost amidst the usual recherche courtesans, bombastic actors, and strutting warriors and sumô wrestlers, the prints in this
modest mini-genre, based on a compilation of Chinese Confucian tales, tend to be austere works depicting devoted children on their knees, humble
farmers with hoes, and frail, bed-ridden elderly people.
In one standard image in the series, a dutiful adult son plays on the floor with toys to amuse his aged parents; in another, a young woman suckles
her wizened mother-in-law (Fig. 1); while in two others, selfless offspring are seen sacrificing their health to burrow under snow and ice for
Setting them apart still further from mainstream ukiyo-e, most renditions of the series — designed by Harunobu, Kuniyoshi (several times),
and Yoshitoshi, among others — boast a style and mood all their own. Figures and landscapes are executed in a vaguely Chinese mode, or in an
Italianate way, or in both at once! And in one of Kuniyoshi's editions, foreignness is further accentuated by the application of a polishing (and
sometimes a brown glaze finish) over the print, giving each sheet of paper the actual feel of a European artwork.
The obvious question is how did these Confucian prints fit into the "product mix" of ukiyo-e publishers? What market niche did they
fill? Well, scholars are less than sure. The pleasure-seeking Edo-period merchant,s so fond of sensuous, escapist art, probably couldn't have
been confused into buying such chaste, moralizing pictures — at least not for themselves.
But what about for their children ... especially their daughters? Some researchers feel filial piety sets were intended, like a goodly amount of shunga (erotic prints), as educational material for brides — perhaps in this case presented by the in-laws to make sure the young lady knew how to look after them. A generous amount of space is devoted to re-telling the story in words, in case the point of the picture is lost.
That seems very plausible, but it also might be interesting to try to correlate publication dates of the various editions with sumptuary and other edicts from the government, especially the quixotic calls for Confucian loyalty and discipline that surfaced periodically as the Shogunate withered. Publishers may have felt pressure to make a token gesture in the direction these crusades, resulting in curiously anomalous works that stand four-square behind "traditional family values."