In this paper I will explore Edo-period realizations of the central event in Azumakudari or “Toward the East”, the ninth episode in The Ise Tales. I will use representations of this moment to explore the reception of classical imagery by Edo artists and their reinterpretation of it.
Woodblock printed illustrated books that fall into the genre of “model books” (edehon) provided illustrations of scenes from classical tales, histories and famous places (meisho). Both amateur artists and artisans drew on these books to master the iconography of these popular subjects for use in paintings, ceramics, lacquers and other craft objects. They learned to evoke these scenes with a few key associative elements. Because these commercially printed books circulated widely, they brought this classical iconography to a very wide audience.
The Ise Tale was first published in a printed edition with images in the early seventeenth century, and ever since illustrations of episodes from this book have been a popular subject with book illustrators, print artists and craftsmen working in many mediums. Indeed, some episodes, such as “Toward the East” (Azumakudari), were even presented on the kabuki stage from the mid-seventeenth century.
Most of the Edo-period adaptations of scenes such as “Azumakudari” relied on earlier visualizations of the scene rather than the text of Ise itself. Sometimes pictorial elements from other sources were interwoven into established visualizations, which could lead to the development of a new iconography of the scene. Indeed, a crucial aspect of Edo visual culture was the introduction of scenes and characters from one story into a completely different one. This merging of images formed an important role in the creative processes at work in the visual culture of early modern Japan.