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The Printer's Eye: Ukiyo-e from the Grabhorn Collection

Hunting for fireflies
1767–1768, by Suzuki Harunobu (Japanese, 1725?–1770)
Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper

On a hot summer night, fireflies glow above a winding stream edged by summer plants — threeleaf arrowhead (omadaka), irises, and reeds. Into this evocative natural scene have stepped a young couple — a boy and girl engaged in firefly hunting (hotaru gari), one of the traditional leisure pastimes of summer evenings. Their pale white faces and exposed necks, hands, legs, and feet stand out against the inky black sky, the bright green of the embankment, and the pale blue water (colored with fleeting dayflower pigment).

Both are slight of figure and exude youthful innocence, even while hinting at other pleasures. The boy wears a striped cotton hand towel tied under his chin—a style often worn to cover one's identity during elicit activities. His summer robe bears a geometric design known as kuruwa tsunagi (a phrase with the double meaning of "joined curved circles" and "joined pleasure quarters"). This motif was often found on garments handed out by special tea houses (hikite jaya) near the entrance of the pleasure quarters, which provided introductions to brothels. His companion wears a wood grain–patterned obi over a diaphanous purple furisode patterned above the hem and on the lower portion of the sleeves with white bracken (warabi)—fern shoots rising out of the earth. The use of paste-resist white patterns on a dark background was the epitome of understated chic in Edo during second half of the eighteenth century.

At least two states of this print are known, with variations in the man's footwear, the cage, and the net. Melissa M. Rinne

Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, Gift of the Grabhorn Ukiyo-e Collection , 2005.100.29.

Image © Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.