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Folk art from Japan By Yoon, Ji-Sook,

HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED what future generations will consider the best of today’s popular culture? Edo period pop art and illustrations in Japan might provide a few hints. Some of this work from the 17th and 18th centuries comes close to being manga, but the originals are now hanging in such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Try Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Utamaro. You may not know their names off the top of your head, but you definitely know their pictures, as a quick click on the links will reveal.

For sheer funkiness, however, a lesser-known class of pictures called otsu-e (Otsu pictures) can’t be beat. The pictures are named for the city of Otsu, just east of Kyoto, which was located on the Tokaido road. This was the primary road between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto during the Edo period. Shops in Otsu sold souvenirs, among them these prints that were produced rapidly and in quantity at the shop. They were usually done as hanging scrolls or simply on sheets of paper. They were so cheap anyone could afford them.

The subjects combined Buddhist themes, auspicious symbols, and a sense of humor with bold colors. They became so popular that the subject matter expanded over the centuries to include non-religious subjects. In fact, by the 18th century, the artists frequently incorporated pictures of such irreligious rascals as goblins, such as in the work shown here, called “Goblin Playing the Shamisen”. The little devil’s drunk and whaling away on his musical instrument, showing that the more things change, the more things don’t change at all.

The Japanese themselves tend to consider them caricatures. Other titles include “The Goblin Nembutsu” (Buddhist Prayer) or “Trying to Hold Down a Catfish with a Gourd.”
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