Caricatures have a long history in Japanese visual arts. The most famous example of the Heian period are the Chōjū jinbutsu giga emaki (Scrolls of Frolicking Animals and People), partly ascribed to the monk Toba Sōjō, on which animals act like human beings or human beings are drawn as animals. When strange picture books were published in the second half of the Edo period they were called Toba-e. Although these black and white pictures belong to the large category of ukiyoe, caricatures in the standard ukiyoe format, ōban nishikie, the 25 x 37 cm multi-coloured prints, were rather few, although there are some by Utamaro and others.
The situation changed completely with the appearance of Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), who excelled in the drawing of caricatures and funny pictures both quantitatively as well as qualitatively. Although Kuniyoshi is mainly known as the master of warrior pictures, partly attributable to the introduction of Kuniyoshi’s work to the Western world by Robinson, he is equally, if not more, important as a caricaturist. The last twenty years of his life were mainly devoted to this genre.
When the Tenpō Reforms (1841-43) made the production of pictures of courtesans and of actors illegal, Kuniyoshi used several tricks to circumvent this prohibition: he drew courtesans and actors as animals or as things with people’s faces, and he drew many pictures the meaning of which was not understandable at once (hanjimono). Such pictures gained great popularity and giga (funny pictures) became a new category of nishikie which flourished at the time of certain events such as the Great Edo Earthquake 1855, the measles’ epidemic of 1862, the War between Great Britain and France and Satsuma and Chōshū 1864, and the Meiji Restoration. The giga-tradition in nishikie continued throughout the Meiji period until the Russo-Japanese War, when the traditional nishikie finally came to an end.