If we were playing my favorite museum game—the one where we admit we’d pass on that famous piece of art if we saw it at a garage sale for $5 and didn’t know who made it—I’d be feeling pretty good about myself at this show. You’d be hearing me say, “TAKE MY MONEY!” for every woodblock print in it.
Because: cats. It turns out that cats are everywhere in ukiyo-e prints, once you start to look. And the current show at the Ōta Museum has primo examples of them all.
How do we know woodblock artists were bigtime into cats long before there was a hashtag? First of all, their sketchbooks are full of cats doing super cat-like things…
And super un-catlike things
You know they had cats of their own because how else would they know about these cat toys of yore?
And even when painting kabuki actors (their other favorite subject), they can’t resist showing how Ichikawa II deftly changes the cat face fan he holds up in front of his face to demonstrate he’s no longer purring, he’s about to bite.
They loved slyly inserting figures that resembled real people into their “informative snapshots” of the floating world, and if they depicted their subject as cats, the people they intended to poke fun at couldn’t really complain. I’m quite sure the fashionable folk of Yoshiwara could guess the identity of every “cat” in this brothel scene.
Likewise, these portraits of “Fashionable Cats” skewered the dandies of the day
The supernatural was also a favorite subject, and since it was believed that elderly pet cats could grow another tail and turn into nekomata (powerful cat monsters who take revenge on anyone who had abused them), two-tailed cats turn out to be really common in woodblock prints.
In this 3-D scene, multiple samurai attempt to exterminate an infestation of giant nekomata
And this series of prints provided additional entertainment value because it was issued as a set that you cut out and put together yourself
But those weren’t the only toys that could be made from woodblock prints. Paper doll animals of yore could be cut out and different headgear tried on to change them into anything from a soldier to a peasant
Or their togs could be exchanged, depending on whether they were supposed to be a samurai or a courtesan
The prints in this show are quite rare, but if you’re now jonesing to own a cat print ukiyo-e of your own, there’s a shop in Yanaka that prints new copies from authentic Edo-era woodblocks that are a fraction of the cost of buying an antique print (and every bit as charming).
Edo Nyanko: Cats in Ukiyo-e
Where: Ōta Memorial Museum of Art, 1-10-10 Jingu-mae, Harajuku
When: Through May 28, 2023
Hours: 10:30 – 17:30
Open: Every day except Monday
*This museum is super-strict about no photography (the guards will rush over and call you out) so all these prints were scanned from the show catalog, which turned out to be an excellent purchase, since they have so many cat prints in their collection, they could only show half during the first month of the exhibition, then switch them out for the other half in the second month.
If you could use more cats and woodblock prints in your life…
Get more Japanese goodness straight from the source!
Subscribe to my monthly Japanagram e-magazine・° ♪・☆ It’s free!
Japanese Home Cooking recipes • Beyond Tokyo travel destinations • Seasonal Secret shopping & events • The Thing I Learned Today • Why, Japan, Why? • Monthly book or J-swag giveaway
Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly e-magazine Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had
2 thoughts on “Cats in Ukiyo-e: The best woodblock print show ever”
This posting was really a delight. Thank you!
So glad it brightened your day! Wish you could have come to this show with me—it was such a pleasure to see art that was also fun.