"pictures of the floating world", is a genre of Japanese
woodblock prints produced between the 17th and the 20th century,
featuring motifs of landscapes, the theater and pleasure quarters.
meaning "floating world", refers to the impetuous young
culture that bloomed in the urban centers of Edo (modern-day
Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto that were a world unto themselves. It
is an ironic allusion to the homophone term "Sorrowful World",
the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists sought
The original Buddhist term had a solemn
religous connotation, and referred to the ephemeral nature of
human life. Not until the middle of the seventeenth century,
when Asai Ryoi used the term for his book, Ukiyo Monogatari
(Tales of the Floating World) did it come to describe a certain
style of life. Ryoi aptly captured it's signifigance for the
pleasure loving crowds of Edo by describing it as "living
only for the moment, gazing at the moon, snow, cherry blossoms
and autumn leaves, enjoying wine, women and song, drifting along
with the current of life, like a gourd floating down a river".
Though Ryoi surrounds ukiyo with charming implications,
he also associates it with an image of aimlessnes and empty-headedness,
retaining some of the word's original Buddhist overtones. This
slight note of criticism, mixed with an obvious sense of delight,
formed an appropriate commentary on the profligate yet congenial
lifestyle of Edo's rising merchant class. Oppressed by a Shogunate
that severely curtailed any productive developement of their
wealth, they had no alternative but to dissipate it on momentary
diversions and amusing trifles.
The art form rose to great popularity
in the metropolitan culture of Edo (Tokyo) during the second
half of the 17th century, originating with the single-color works
of Hishikawa Moronobu in the 1670s. At first, only India ink
was used, then some prints were manually colored with a brush,
but in the 18th century Suzuki Harunobu developed the technique
of polychrome printing to produce nishiki-e.
were affordable because they could be mass-produced. They were
meant for mainly townsmen, who were generally not wealthy enough
to afford an original painting. The original subject of ukiyo-e
was city life, in particular activities and scenes from the entertainment
district. Many ukiyo-e prints by artists like Utamaro and Sharaku
were in fact posters, advertising theatre performances and brothels,
or idol portraits of popular actors and beautiful teahouse girls.
Beautiful courtesans, bulky sumo wrestlers and popular actors
would be portrayed while engaged in appealing activities. Later
on landscapes also became popular. Political subjects, and individuals
above the lowest strata of society (courtesans, wrestlers and
actors) were not sanctioned in these prints and very rarely appeared.
Sex was not a sanctioned subject either, but continually appeared
in ukiyo-e prints. Artists and publishers were sometimes
punished for creating these sexually explicit shunga.