It is a long-enduring myth that the United States "opened" Japan when Commodore Perry guided his smoke-belching black ships up Uraga Bay in 1853. According to this gospel, Japan was a closed country, guided by ancient traditions, and ruled by Confucian shoguns who enforced a rigid class system that contained the social dynamism that would explode in the latter half of the 19th Century.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Notes Japan scholar Chalmers Johnson: "Japan (in the early 19th Century) was a country that was going to explode whether the West came there or not."
Some of the most beautiful evidence of this impending explosion is contained in Peter Morse's HOKUSAI: ONE HUNDRED POETS (George Braziller: $80; 224 pp.), a collection of woodblock prints and line drawings by the master Japanese painter and woodblock artist Hokusai (1760-1849). The last of the artist's great print series, it was an attempt to illustrate Japan's famous "Hyakunin Isshu"--100 poems by 100 poets. This is a collection of traditional Japanese court poetry, which, according to Peter Morse's introduction, has come to represent a body of popular wisdom in Japan similar to that of "Aesop's Fables" in the West. But Hokusai was an irreverent man, and he had little interest in chronicling the priggish manners and rarefied aesthetics of Japan's 12th-Century nobility. He was determined to reinvent the images of the ancient poems in a contemporary context. So he turned his view away from the palace and toward the roiling activity in the towns, villages and countryside, in the words of critic Ichitaro Kondo, to "portray humanity, unpowdered and unadorned."
In part, this was just business. Despite the highbrow allure of Japan's woodblock prints in Western art salons, these works were made by and for Japan's emerging bourgeoisie. The ukiyo-e , or "pictures of the floating world," were part of a new chonin culture (literally, "culture of the townspeople") that was emerging in Japan in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the financial success of merchants and artisans--and the seductive charms of the courtesans, actors and artists who entertained them--was undermining the traditional power and culture of the Samurai.
Hokusai's predecessors--artists like Utamaro and Sharaku--catered to the rich merchants by composing images of beautiful women, actors, and life in the pleasure quarters of Edo (old Tokyo) and Osaka. But Hokusai captured a larger audience by turning his attention to more common folk. Ichitaro Kondo notes that Hokusai's sensuous portrayals of farmers, pearl divers and carpenters--working, drinking and making love--"gave his countrymen a new evaluation of ordinary man and his everyday activities."
To do this in "The 100 Poems," Hokusai's challenge was to find a way to break free of the stilted sentiments and rigid, traditional form imposed by the 31-syllable tanka. Hokusai's solution was to title the collection: "Pictures of 100 Poems by 100 Poets, Explained by the Nurse." He invented an old woman to serve as a "narrator." Hiding in the skirts of this "nurse's" rather batty interpretations, Hokusai found a way to tease new meanings from the old verses. With the help of the many homonyms in the Japanese language, Hokusai delighted in irreverent puns or total misreadings of the text, and composed pictures that interested him and his contemporary audience more than did the stale connoisseurship practiced by idle 12th-Century courtiers.
When Hokusai's nurse sees the phrase Ama no Kagu, normally translated as "heaven's perfume"--she misreads it in a more earthy context: "the stench of flax." A fragile "node of reed" multiplies in Hokusai's picture to a huge cartful, hauled by three sweaty, half-naked men.
Hokusai mocks the idle musings of nobles through their grooms and attendants. In a maudlin poem about the sadness of the passing of the night, Hokusai and his nurse see a gaggle of palanquin bearers hustling their masters home from the Yosiwara brothels before they are recognized in the light of day.
Everywhere in these pictures, poetic stillness is usurped by tawdry hustle, aesthetics by sexual athletics, contemplation by sweaty work. A scene of three elegant ladies by a river becomes a flatulent joke: They are nearly obscured from view by a farmer tugging at a huge, stubborn ox. And Hokusai steams up a rather dry poem about enduring love with a scene of three men and three women lounging around a hot bath by a cool blue river. What Hokusai and his nurse do to the "Hyakunin Isshu" is subvert them in the same way that Chonin culture eroded the foundations of the austere world of the Samurai, a warrior class with no wars to fight, rapidly collapsing of its own dead weight.