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Bitten by Giga

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

Yoshimune giga fig. 1
Fig. 1
Yoshimune giga fig. 2
Fig. 2

Though leavened by risqué and even burlesque touches, classic ukiyo-e did not boast downright bawdiness or scatology. That honor was reserved for a special genre called manga or giga. Giga, unlike the boldly erotic shunga, or "spring pictures," a category of Japanese woodblock fare that still has the power to shock and, in a few less than progressive nations (like Japan!), arouse the constabulary, come across to us today as merely raucous and adolescent. Yet, through giga (the word means "pictures drawn for amusement") we can see how Edo period artists catered to the earthier, irreverent side of their public. And we can perhaps pick up a few insights into the enigma of the Japanese sense of humor. It is clear from the caliber of the artists involved, and the large number of prints produced, that more than a fringe segment of the ukiyo world went fairly gaga over giga ... a point not too surprising if you look at the gags and slapstick stunts that pass for comedy in the Japanese media today.

Crass, mercantile Osaka has long been considered the low-brow antidote to the over-mannerliness of the rest of the country, so it is only natural that its woodblock publishers occasionally abandoned their obsession with kabuki and produced a few stand-out manga series. In the late 1850s, the publisher Daijin and two Osaka ukiyo-e artists, Yoshitoyo and Yoshiume, knocked their funny bones together and came up with a half-size set of 50 broadly farcical scenes entitled "Comic Famous Places of Osaka." Fig 1, by Yoshiume (1819-79), illustrates what happens when nature calls while one is strolling in a popular Osaka rape blossom field, while other images from this series include a blind man peeing on newly-dyed kimono fabric drying on a wall, a horse's erect member discombobulating some passing ladies, dogs and eels and octopi misbehaving in the marketplace, and so on. Subtle stuff.

Fig 2, from an (equally well-printed) companion series on Kyoto, is also by Yoshiume. Only 17 "giga bits" are known to me from this series but — in keeping with the more refined reputation of the ancient capital — these vignettes are more genteel and less bodily-function oriented than their Osaka counterparts. In Fig 2 a boy inside Toji Temple (site of the famous flea market!) sprays a passerby with a fire extinguisher, while an artist stands calmly nearby, presumably enraptured by the famous ceiling painting of a dragon.

Osaka giga took an expansive view of the province of farce, lampooning not only sacrosanct institutions, but also the city's commercial bent, classic literature and revered samurai history. The profaning of the latter, one would think, bordered on the sacrilegious, and yet there are many print pastiches of even the saga of the 47 Ronin, the most hallowed story of honor and revenge in the whole Japanese hagiography.

Fig 3, by the artist Hironobu I (active 1851-70), is not so intriguing until you understand that the character portrayed — flummoxed by a frog and a scarecrow  — is none other than Generalissimo Hideyoshi, the fearsome builder of Osaka Castle and unifier of Japan at the turn of the 17th century. The image is part of a 15-piece manga send-up of Taikoki, the epic story of Osaka's greatest heroic personage, from the publisher Yaozenshi. Most of the visual references and word plays in prints like this are lost on non-scholars, but there is no mistaking the politically subversive seeds that are sown by this watermelon-stealing scene. In fact, those who complain that contemporary Japan views itself too seriously — "Can't they take a joke?" we often hear — must pray for today's immensely influential manga comic book industry to always remember its root traditions.

Hironobu giga fig. 3
Fig. 3

This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 18, Spring 1998. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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