Astute readers may have noticed lately that I’ve been frequently referencing certain artwork from something called One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. It has been a kind of become an artistic obsession of mine for weeks.
Called the tsuki no hyakushi (月百姿) in Japanese, this collection of woodblock prints was published in the early-modern period of Japanese history, the Meiji Period, over a series of years until it was later compiled. It was created by one of the very last woodblock print artists Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡 芳年, 1839 – 1892) as the art was dying out in the face of Western industry and mass-production.
The One Hundred Aspects of the Moon depicts the moon in various historical or literary scenes, covering a wide range of emotions, situations and people, both Japanese and some from China. It’s a kind of who’s-who of Japanese culture and history. I was surprised to discover that there was no dedicated Wikipedia page about it in English, so I shamelessly copied over the contents from the Japanese page to here, and started filling in translations for each print. It was a lot of work, and I was relieved to see that others jumped in to help. Collaboration at its finest.
Part of the challenge of appreciating the One Hundred Aspects in English is that many of the pictures aren’t just beautiful, but have a fascinating backstory to them that even everyday Japanese wouldn’t necessarily know, let alone foreigners.
Let’s look at our first example:
This picture, number 40, features the famous star-crossed lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi who are the subject of the Tanabata festival in July, and their story is popular not just in Japan, but also in China and other related cultures.
This picture, number 3, is the famous Chinese warlord Cao Cao (曹操, pronounced tsao-tsao) crossing a river toward the famous Red Cliffs, the site of one of the battles that took place toward the end of the Han Dynasty. If you ever played any Romance of the Three Kingdoms games, or even read the English translation of the famous 16th epic novel (highly recommend), you probably know Cao Cao.
Moving toward Japanese figures, here is the court nobleman Fujiwara no Kinto, picture 47. Fujiwara no Kinto lived during the Heian Period (8th-12th century) and was part of preeminent aristocratic culture at the time. He was a very talented calligrapher and poetry critic. In his official capacity, he was responsible for compiling some of the poetry anthologies people enjoy today.
Speaking of courtiers and such, picture 64 features a man named Abé no Nakamaro, who was part of a delegation to China and stayed for 10 years. His viewing of the moon here while in China alludes to his poem in the Hyakunin Isshu anthology, poem 7, and longing for home.
Finally, let’s look another print from legend:
This scene is from the well-known Japanese tale of Kaguya-himé, the bamboo-cutter’s daughter. Here in the final scene, she is escorted back to her home on the moon, reluctantly leaving her adoptive parents behind. This story is dear to me, as I read it to both my kids (in English) when they were little, and as a dad I’ve always enjoyed it.
Anyhow, that’s a brief look at the One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. Yoshitoshi’s work is highly underrated in Western culture, and some of the challenge is being able to convey the backstory of each print, not just the prints themselves. I might post more about it in the near future.
P.S. Books about the One Hundred Aspects are few and far between but I bought this one recently and it was a great read. (sponsored link to Amazon)