Woodblock prints: arts or mass media?
The art of woodblock printmaking originated in China in 6th century and slowly spread over the world. Initially developed to reproduce already existing paintings, being introduced to Japan around 17th century woodblock prints represented artworks in themselves. The period of isolation sparked demand for amusement and dreams and woodblock prints successfully fit into this role depicting images from kabuki theater, pictures of actors, courtesans and sumo wrestlers (Dower, Throwing Off Asia II, 2008). The popularity of the prints helped them to achieve level of perfection and artistry, while staying cheap and mass source of art. (Wanczura, 2007)
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Woodblock prints of Sino-Japanese war period
To start analyzing the prints from Sino-Japanese war period, we need to outline general attitude of Japan towards China. The view of China as a backward civilization with outdated technology, overly “oriental” image and even lapse into barbarity sharply contradicts with Japan’s view of itself as a part of Western civilization, and a dominating power in Asia.
The woodblocks of that period contributed a lot to shape new image of Chinese as weak and effete cowards. This image contradicts with previous view of China that played critical role in shaping of Japanese culture and philosophical world. The woodblocks stressed differences between Chinese and Japanese soldiers. Chinese are depicted with heavy usage of traditional stereotypes about "Orientals": "robed in gaudy silks, sport long pigtails and lack of order and discipline" (Wells & Wilson, 1999).
Overall dominance is portrayed using several distinctive motives, such as total dominance of the enemy, survival against nature, courage and discipline, technological superiority, heroic poses, enlisted glory and altruism. Such categorization helps to understand Japan’s interpretation of “higher” civilization and its preconceived attitude towards China during the war (Mudd, 2005).
Examples of one or several of those motives can be found in every print. The image “Admiral Kabayama Fights Furiously in the Great Sino-Japanese Naval Battle off Takushan in China” portrays modern Japanese steam battle ships made of steel in contrast to old-style Chinese wooden boats (which is, by the way, not exactly true, and Chinese army had several ships that excelled technological level of Japanese navy). Japanese sailors are depicted working as a team (group discipline) under supervision of an officer with distinctive Western-like facial hairstyles, modern navy uniform that is very similar to European designs. The whole triptych demonstrates superiority of Japanese fleet in terms of numbers and weaponry.
The way the Japanese soldiers are portrayed is supposed not just to show backwardness of China, but also to demonstrate closeness of Japanese methods of warfare to Western practices, showing the world that Japan deserves to be called a civilized nation.
On the "Captain Higuchi" print, several other virtues are displayed. Fighting in harsh conditions of severe winter during the Battle of Weihaiwei , Higuchi is portrayed in a heroic position, leading his soldiers in attack while holding a Chinese child. Here we can see survival against nature, enlisted glory, altruism, and courage at the same time.
Similar heroic poses appearing in several other triptychs resemble Kabuki actors playing Japanese officers and make the whole image look more like a staged performance rather than real-life representation (Dower, Throwing Off Asia II, 2008).
To distinguish themselves from Chinese “barbarians”, Japanese media used several repeating themes to depict Chinese warriors...