Tentacle Tuesday: Matchboxes and Woodblocks

Much like fish painstakingly climbed out of the water and became mammals aeons ago, humorous representations of life, artists’ flights of whimsical fancy or taut fight scenes from centuries gone by morphed, over time, into something that resembled more and more what everyone now recognizes as comics. Me, I like blurred lines, the point at which several trees become a forest. What fun is it to live in a world where everything is well-defined, sorted into tidy little piles? Today’s Tentacle Tuesday stretches this blog’s comics-bound raison d’être just a teensy-weeny little bit. But I believe that the kinetic energy hidden within the following illustrations, the jump-off-the-page personality of these octopuses makes them close cousins to their more modern counterparts who dwell in the seas of sequential panels and images.

Just mentally add a speech bubble or two, if you must!

First of all, I have three woodblock prints, all three from the Edo period (Edo being the old name for Tokyo). The latter term refers to the period between 1603 and 1868 in the history of Japan, and is of interest  because it was characterized, among other things, by a flourishing interest in culture, be it music, poetry, theatre, or, more relevantly to the current post, art. That famous woodblock print, the Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, which I have no need to include because of its ubiquity, was not the first painting featuring a woman in the embrace of an octopus. Yet it’s probably the most influential one, precursor of the hentai now so entrenched in popular culture…. and it was created during the aforementioned Edo era by Katsushika Hokusai (who, incidentally, also brought into existence the ever-popular The Great Wave off Kanagawa, ensuring the relative immortality of his art.)

Collectively, the work crafted during the Edo era (not necessarily woodblock prints, although these seemed to predominate, but also paintings) is referred to as Ukiyo-e, which in Japanese vaguely means something like “images of a floating world”. Poetic as usual, the Japanese.

The fist woodblock print is entitled “Ryuko tako no asobi“, or The Fashionable Octopus Games. The British Museum (which seems to currently own this piece) describes it as « Octopuses re-enacting human amusements, such as the fight between Ushiwakamaru and Benkei on Gojo Bridge (top left) and sumo wrestling (bottom centre), dance, sword play, music, acrobatics, and other activities. » The artist is Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi-OctopusGames

The second one, a triptych, is called One Hundred Turns of the Rosary and belongs to the One Hundred Wildernesses series, which shows « a procession of demons who appear throughout the night, offering a spectacular visual encyclopedia of supernatural creatures of premodern Japanese folklore » (description from the website of The Metropolitan Museum of Art). The artist is Kawanabe Kyosai.

Kawanabe Kyosai-one-hundred-wildernesses

My favourite is the following woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who had a great fondness for cats and inserted them seemingly everywhere. Visit this gallery of his cat-themed art over at the Great Cat blog, from which I’ll quote a paragraph for those who aren’t inclined to follow links:

« Utagawa Kuniyoshi was a great cat lover, and it was said that his studio was full of them. Often he could be seen working with a kitten snuggled up in his kimono. An apprentice, Yoshimune, reported that when one of Kuniyoshi’s cats died, he would have it sent to a nearby temple, and a Buddhist altar for his deceased cats was erected in his home. There he kept tablets with the cats’ Buddhist names on the altar. Kuniyoshi’s love of his felines spilled over into his art. Cats fill many of his compositions and he even began to give Kabuki actors cat faces. Kuniyoshi’s Ume no haru gjusantsugi was performed in 1835. A cat has shape-shifted into an old woman while a cat wearing a napkin dances while a cat licks the lamp. The cloth on the cat’s head represents the folk belief that cats would steal napkins and would dance together and howl “Neko ja!” (We are cats!). Cats often times licked Japanese lamps of the period because they were fueled with fish oil. »


I’ll doubtlessly howl “Neko ja!” at the next available opportunity.

Moving on, we have two illustrations from Japanese matchboxes.

First, a Japanese matchbox from around 1920s-40s. This little guy comes from a collection posted by Jane McDevitt, who’s passionate about matchbox art. I also really enjoyed her Eastern European matchbox label collection, which you can admire here.


Of further interest on this topic is this comic strip by Roz Chast about her predilection for collecting matchbox art, published in the April 4, 2016 issue of New Yorker Magazine. As it turns out, Chast rejects the hassle of actually owning them, preferring to keep her collection as digital files. I suppose I am a collector, for I definitely prefer “owning” the physical version of things that interest me, but to each her own!

And another matchbox octopus from the 1950s:


And it’s « goodnight from me »!

– ds

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