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

Morokoshi of the Echizenya [brothel], from the series The Thirty-six Poetic Immortals as Selected

by Ippitsusai Buncho (Japanese, active approx. 1765–1792)
Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper

This print is from a series that references waka, or classical poetry, by members of the "Thirty-six Poetic Immortals" (Sanjūrokkasen) to comment on the emotional and quotidian life of the Yoshiwara prostitute. The poem written in the cloud-shaped panel at the top is from the "Love" section of the imperial anthology Shūi wakashū. Attributed to the courtier Fujiwara Asatada (910–966), it describes the disillusionment of a lover who foresees the inevitable ending of an affair:

Afu koto mo
taete shi naku wa
nakanaka ni
hito wo mo mi wo mo

Though for rendezvous
Every hope were to vanish
Oh, banish despair—
For she and I would thus be spared
The rancor sure to come

Bunchō's design playfully comments on the poem by showing a man leading Morokoshi, a courtesan attached to the Echizenya brothel, away from a teahouse or restaurant. The late hour is indicated by the presence of a large paper lantern decorated with a crane and cherry blossom logo. An illicit air pervades the scene: she wears bedclothes, secured only with a soft sash, and glances back inside as they steal away; a cloth half-concealing his features, the man reaches inside her sleeve to guide her; the young person at his side looks back along the street, as if checking for observers. Although Bunchō is best known for his actor prints, this image shows his aptitude for the type of intimate scenes associated with life inside the pleasure quarters. Laura W. Allen

Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, Gift of the Grabhorn Ukiyoe Collection , 2005.100.47.

Image © Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.