I love this book. End of review.
No, I should write a little more than that. I do love it though. Japan Journeys is a collection of ukiyo-e (the Japanese term for woodblock prints pre-20th century) themed around travel in Japan. I’m not an expert on ukiyo-e, but I’m quite familiar with the subject. I got my first book on woodblock prints 20 years ago, got a few more after that, and have attended a few exhibitions on them while traveling in Japan. At this point, I’ve stopped buying other books because they all seem to cover the same or very similar material: a general overview of the field. What sets this book apart is the focus of it. The vast majority of Marks’ book is prints from the 1830’s, up to the 1940’s, rather than starting in the 17th century and trailing off in the Meiji era as many books do. Marks describes 19th century Japan as a paradise for travelers, and selects prints that worked in many ways as souvenirs for the people traveling at the time. This selection process has led him to featuring numerous prints and styles that I had simply never seen, including many examples of shin hanga (“new prints) from the 20th century.
Probably you have an image of ukiyo-e in your head, possibly images by Hokusai or Hiroshige. Most books or even museums tend to show relatively few pictures past 1850. I can’t say for sure why, but I suspect those late works look less ‘magically Japanese.’ As Japan opened up in the Meiji era, trains start to appear in prints, foreigners (usually white people) as well, and you’re as likely to see a suit as a kimono. By 1900, the age of ukiyo-e is over, and foreign influence starts to appear in the art, as there are prints that call out to Impressionism (fair play, since ukiyo-e was such a big influence on that style) and Art Deco, among others. These images are just as Japanese as any other, and at this point, show a period lost to us in time. One or two appearing in the book was interesting, but then there were more and more, all showing the evolution in woodblock prints into the modern era. It was beautiful. I was delighted. Images of pre-war Ginza in Tokyo recall New York in the 30’s, but with the textured color of a woodblock print. Kawase Hasui’s Art Deco influenced images of Zozoji Temple and Meiji Shrine are gorgeous in their design and execution. Hasui may have just become one of my favorite artists. Hiroshige and Hokusai are exceptional artists, but most people with a passing interest in the subject have seen a lot of their art already.
Another thing I really appreciated was the organization of the book. Art books in general tend to be very chronological in structure, and there’s none of that here. It’s organized by location, so a section on Kyoto has a 19th century Hiroshige print of the Sanjo Bridge facing a picture from 1920 by Hashiguchi Goyo. This gives you a chance to see how the styles changed, as well as a glimpse into how the city changed as well. It’s a novel way to showcase both the subjects and the art.
The print quality is great, with clear images on glossy paper. Possibly I could ask for a slightly larger sized book to enjoy the images more since they are the feature of the book, but that is a slight complaint, and for what the book is trying to be (an affordable, non-imposing art book), it is quite successful.
I had thought that if I wanted to get a better knowledge of woodblock prints at this point, I would have to stick with more academic texts, which I don’t really want to do. Japan Journeys gives me just what I’ve wanted, while being very casual in tone. It is a deeper dive into the subject, curated by someone who seems to be a connoisseur (the short bio in the book shows he was awarded the annual award by the International Ukiyo-e Society in 2014). I would definitely recommend this to people with an interest in the subject, but if you are coming into the subject new, I might recommend Marks’ other book instead: Japanese Woodblock Prints, which covers the traditional period of 1680 – 1900. He knows his subject.