Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡芳年)

Yoshitoshi TSUKIOKA (April 30, 1839 - June 9, 1892) was an ukiyoe artist from the end of the Edo period to the first half of the Meiji period. His real name was Yonejiro. Another pseudonym he used was Yoshitoshi IKKAISAI, and later he was renamed Yoshitoshi TAISO. He mainly drew pictures of historical subjects, beautiful women, and actors for ukiyoe woodblock prints. He is particularly well-known for his atrocity prints. While he was nicknamed 'insane artist' and 'bloody Yoshitoshi', he established his unique style for each of the above-mentioned subjects.

Since he was successful unlike the other ukiyoe artists on the wane in those days, he is sometimes labeled as 'the last ukiyoe artist.'
He studied under Kuniyoshi UTAGAWA, and Kyosai KAWANABE was one of his fellow pupils.


In 1839, he was born as the second son of Hyobu YOSHIOKA, a merchant in Minamiosaka-cho, Shinbashi, Edo (according to another opinion, Okubo, Toshima-gun, Bushu). Later, he was adopted into the Tsukioka family, an artist in Kyoto (some say that he made this up, while others say that he was adopted by his father's cousin Shikisaburo KYOYA, an apothecary, and studied under Shogetsu, an artist in the Shijo school, at first, but he thought his teacher's art would not be popular and promising so that he became a pupil of Kuniyoshi UTAGAWA).

In 1850, he became a pupil of Kuniyoshi UTAGAWA at the age of twelve.

In 1853, he began his carrier by illustrating the book "Ehon jitsugo kyodoji kyoyoshi" under the name Yoshitoshi YOSHIOKA. In the same year, he produced his first design for the woodblock print 'Bunji gannen Heike ichimon kaichu rakunyuzu' under the pseudonym Yoshitoshi IKKAISAI.

In 1865, he inherited the pseudonym Sessai TSUKIOKA, a younger brother of his grandfather.

From January to July in 1867, he collaborated with Yoshiiku OCHIAI, his fellow pupil, on the production of "Eimei nijuhachi shuku." The work was a series of 28 cruel scenes from kabuki theater, and he drew 14, half of the series. In 1868, he drew for "Kaidai hyakusenso." For that work, Yoshitoshi went to the battlefield to see the battle between the shogitai army and the Imperial army with his disciple Toshikage. Until the next year 1869, he produced other works including "Azuma no nishiki ukiyo kodan."

From around 1870, he suffered a mental breakdown and produced far fewer works.

In 1872, the series "Ikkai zuihitsu", which he thought was good, was not favorably accepted, and he was shocked and suffered a serious mental breakdown. In the next year, he recovered and changed his pseudonym to 'Taiso' with the intention of resurrecting himself.

In 1874, he designed for the woodblock prints "Sakurada mongai ni okeru Ii tairo shugeki" consisting of six continuous views. In 1875, he began drawing for the newspaper article "Yubin hochi shinbun nishikie." That had articles about contemporary incidents with woodblock print illustrations.

In 1877, the Seinan War broke out and a large number of woodblock prints illustrating the war started to be made. He did not go to see the battle but depicted the scenes including those of the Seinan War through imagination.

In 1878, he depicted the emperor's waiting women for "Bita shichi yosei", which caused trouble.

In 1879, he moved to Miyanaga-machi and met Tai SAKAMAKI, a daughter of his maid Mrs. Sakamaki.

In 1882, he was employed by the Eiri Jiyu Shinbun newspaper at a large salary of a hundred yen, but in 1884, he drew for another newspaper Jiyu no tomoshibi, which made trouble with the Eiri Jiyu Shinbun. He also drew illustrations for Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper.

In 1883, he had an affair with Maboroshi dayu depicted in 'Nezu hanayashiki Omatsu-ro' but broke up with her, and in 1884, formally married Tai SAKAMAKI..

In 1885, he was the top in the popularity ranking of artists in 'Tokyo ryuko saikenki' for his works including his best known 'Oshu adachigahara hitotsuya no zu.'

Subsequently, he produced a series of woodblock prints including "Dainippon meisho kagami" "Dainihonshi ryaku zue""Shinryu nijuyoji" "Fuzoku sanjuniso" "Tsuki hyakushi" and "Shinsen azuma nishiki-e", for which he made designs growing out of ukiyoe; he might have had a sense of crisis as an ukiyoe artist in that and started being also active as a proper artist. He also made his disciples study under other artists so that they are active in various fields.

From around 1891, just before the completion of "Shinkei Sanjurokkaisen", his health was being ruined by alcohol so that he suffered a nervous breakdown again, had his eyesight fail, and developed beriberi. His misfortune was compounded by some successive mishaps including having his money stolen.

In 1892, although he managed to draw sign boards of the Shintomi-za theater with Toshihide as his assistant, his health was deteriorated and was admitted to Sugamo hospital. He tried to draw in the hospital, from which he transferred to a hospital in Matsukawa, but on May 2, he was discharged from the hospital as his doctor gave up on him. On June 9, he died of congestion of the brain at his temporary residence in Fujishiro-cho, Honjo. Yamato Shinbun newspaper reported in the article on June 10, however, that he began to recover from the mental breakdown he had suffered from the end of the year before, but while he was under the medical treatment of the mental breakdown at home, he suffered from another illness.

Yoshitoshi's grave is in Senpuku-ji temple in Higashiokubo. In 1898, people led by Tenshin OKAKURA erected a monument to him in Mukojima-Hyakkaen.

His painting style and subjects

Although Yoshitoshi is associated with atrocity prints because his prints were favored by those including Ranpo EDOGAWA and Yukio MISHIMA, his art covered a wide range of historical paintings, beautiful women paintings, genre paintings of manners and customs, and paintings of classical subjects. Recently, Yoshitoshi's paintings other than those atrocity prints were being given more credit. His warrior paintings are superb, the technique for which he got from his master Kuniyoshi UTAGAWA.

He also drew a lot of original paintings strongly influenced by the Shijo school, which might have been because he first studied in that school (according to a story by himself). He studied various painting styles since he thought that it was insufficient to study only the ukiyoe painting. He placed great importance on sketching.

Yoshitoshi's paintings feature in gorgeous color selection and unrestricted techniques he got from his master Kuniyoshi. The paintings also feature in the composition and techniques that he elaborated on what he got from his master. His painting techniques of showing a moving subject like in a stop motion, are still used in modern manga and gekiga; therefore, some people say that he is a pioneer of the modern gekiga.

That may be a reason why he is appreciated more highly abroad than in Japan. Subjects of his pictures, especially the one in 'Rochishin ransui dakai godai kongoshin no zu', are so well-proportioned that they look like the western sculptures, unlike the Oriental people.

Historical paintings and warrior paintings

Yoshitoshi's historical paintings are highly appreciated. YAMATO Takeru no Mikoto in "Dainihonshi ryaku zue" and 'FUJIWARA no Yasumasa gekka byobuzu' produced in 1883 are well-known. It might have been because the paintings were drawn in the Meiji period that the historical figures in his paintings show self-consciousness instead of being stereotyped.

Beautiful women paintings and genre paintings of manners and customs
He also drew beautiful women paintings and genre paintings of manners and customs; fresh young women in "Fuzoku sanjuniso" are famous.

Atrocity paintings
In his early period work "Eimei nijuhachi shuku" (collaboration with Yoshiiku OCHIAI,) he elaborated coloring materials by mixing glue into the paints to make the blood of the figure gleam. He produced this work when he was impressed by Kuniyoshi UTAGAWA's 'Saetatenouchi kitaeno wazamono." The work was made with reference to fake blood used in playhouses. The shows of that kind were popular in those days.

Yoshitoshi placed great importance on sketching so that he took his disciples to sketch heads just severed during the upheavals at the end of Edo period and corpses in battlefields of the Boshin War in 1868. Exceptionally, Yoshitoshi drew 'Oshu adachigahara hitotsuya no zu', one of his masterpieces, in 1885 using only his imagination. Seiu ITO, who is famous for his torture paintings (especially paintings of women bound), duplicated the scene by really suspending upside down his pregnant wife, who volunteered herself, to photograph the scene to verify whether Yoshitoshi really suspended a pregnant woman upside down or not. Since the photograph was different from the Yoshitoshi's paintings, it was confirmed that Yoshitoshi did not sketch the scene. When Seiu ITO told that to Yoshitoshi's disciple later, the disciple said that his master would be pleased to see the photograph.

Other subjects
Partly because he might have had an attachment to the moon due to the letter in his name, he drew the moon in most of his paintings including "Tsuki hyakushi," a series of one hundred paintings of moon. The series is considered to be the masterpiece of his later years. Yoshitoshi also drew ghosts including "Yurei no zu" and "Shukuba joro zu," and it is said that Yoshitoshi saw a ghost of a prostitute.


Yoshitoshi was a strict and also affectionate master to his disciples. Allowing for the age of European painting, he made his several disciples study under western-style painters. Accordingly, quite a few of his disciples became great artists.

It is said that he was so sentimental and sympathetic that he was moved to tears by stories about human nature told by Encho SANYUTEI. As a child, Kiyokata KABURAKI got an impression of Yoshitoshi that he was a goggle eyed but not fierce-looking man.

There is an story that says that when Yoshitoshi was binding up his disciple as a model for his painting, an acquaintance of Yoshitoshi was startled at the sight and asked Yoshitoshi to forgive the disciple, and then, Yoshitoshi was humorous enough to answer the acquaintance with a joke 'I'm punishing my bad disciple by binding him up.'
Yoshitoshi was a cheerful man who loved festivals and was a good talker.

Generally, people think that he was a sick man because of his nervous breakdown. He kept painting in spite of his illness.


Yoshitoshi had disciples including Toshikata MIZUNO, Toshitsune INANO, Toshihide MIGITA, Toshitada YAMADA, and Yoshimune ARAI, and Toshikata MIZUNO had a lot of disciples including Kiyokata KABURAKI and Terukata IKEDA. Especially, Kiyokata KABURAKI visited Yoshitoshi's house from his childhood.

His disciples were active as illustrators and Japanese-style painters.

Writers including Ryunosuke AKUTAGAWA, Junichiro TANIZAKI, Yukio MISHIMA, and Ranpo EDOGAWA favored Yositoshi's paintings.

Among artists, Tadanori YOKOO is publishing books of paintings under the influence of Yoshitoshi.

[Original Japanese]