Re: Floating world

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Posted by John Fiorillo on May 03, 1999 at 03:52:20:

In Reply to: Floating world posted by Frank on April 27, 1999 at 09:18:23:

The floating world was the urban world of the prosperous townspeople of the Tokugawa period (1615-1868). Its subject matter was actually quite broad, but it was focused particularly upon the pleasure or entertainment districts of the three main cities (Edo, Osaka, Kyoto). These areas of play were ritualized milieu offering escape from the constraints forced upon the merchant class by the samurai estate. The floating world embraced most of what constituted everyday life, but it particularly celebrated the "insiderís world" of the courtesan, kabuki and puppet theaters, teahouses and retail shops, fashionable clothing and accessories, festivals, travel, and broadly speaking, the new-found wealth and personal expression of the merchant class (all proscribed within certain limits as defined periodically by the shogunís government). It was basically, in all its imaginative variations, the subject matter of traditional woodblock prints and paintings made during the Tokugawa and Meiji periods.

The term "ukiyo-e" is composed of three Japanese characters: "uki" (see Nelson Second Rev. Ed. #2575) = "floating"; "yo" (Nelson #95) = "world"; and "e" = "print": Thus the standard translation of "ukiyo-e" is "Prints of the Floating World." In its usual sense "ukiyo" meant "transitory world," but it also had the connotations of "everyday world," "present reality," or "world of the here and now." There was a special, formalized "reality" represented by ukiyo-e prints and paintings, a sort of personal reality of the artist and his patrons constituting fanciful retellings of life in the Floating World.

There was another character used to write "uki" (Nelson #70), which means "sorrowful." When that alternate character was used in the compound "ukiyo" it meant "this sorrowful world" and thus had Buddhist or religious connotations. It also implied a "transitory world" but with the implication that the present "reality" was ephemeral, even an illusion, a preparatory stage before a more meaningful afterlife. Many writers have linked the two ways of writing "ukiyo" as two "opposites" of the same perception of transitory reality, the religious emphasis being on the sorrow of daily life, the merchant emphasis on temporary escape and enjoyment. Neither view denied the pessimism experienced in an ephemeral world. Other critics argue, however, that the two terms were not actually used interchangeably at first but only later became confused during the Tokugawa period, as early as the mid-eighteenth century. The debate continues over just how closely linked are the two ways of writing "ukiyo."


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