Ukiyo-e woodblock prints speak volumes about their world without raising their voice.

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The Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Japan’s Edo period manage to speak volumes about their world without raising their voice.

These delicate yet powerfully evocative images are the fullest expression of the Edo period (1603 to 1868), when the Japanese aesthetic focus on art and natural beauty achieved full flower.  Edo was a time of widespread peace, social mobility, political fertility and economic growth, particularly in the area that would come to be called Tokyo.

Ukiyo-e literally translates as “the floating world.” In one iconic print, a few scattered and huddled figures cross a bridge in the rain, reminders of humankind’s subservience to nature, while a single passing boat and the lights on the far-away shore speak to the persistence of human industry and endeavor, as well as the pursuit of pleasure.

Photograph c 2016   Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All rights reserved. William S. and John T. Spaulding Collection, 1921. 21_9465
Photograph c 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All rights reserved. William S. and John T. Spaulding Collection, 1921. 21_9465

Why are the huddled figures crossing the bridge? Are they working or playing?

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Or is this “floating world” actually a state of mind?

Seldom has so much been said at a whisper!

Ukiyo-e woodblock prints pay homage to the culture and lifestyle of a teeming society of samurai, artists, chefs, merchants, peasants and noblemen.  They serve as lenses to their time, capturing every aspect of Edo life, from Kabuki theater to courtesans parading in ornate fashions.

Return to the Edo period during filmed presentations at the University of Washington on Nov. 1-2, and explore the traditional Ukiyo-e woodblock prints that have become one of the island nation’s most recognizable cultural symbols. Crews from NHK WORLD TV, Japan’s public television network, will be on hand to film the event for its program called “Dive into UKIYO-E.”

The prints were created in collaboration with master artisans — including the eshi (painter), horishi (carver) and surishi (printer) — and were considered a form of entertainment for the masses, with each print as affordable as a bowl of noodles, according to NHK WORLD TV.

Another product of the Edo period is the comic storytelling style known as Rakugo, which involves a single seated performer presenting a small, humorous drama involving different characters, relying only on narrative skill rather than props.

Storyteller Katsura Sunshine will use Rakugo techniques to bring the Edo period to life in his performances at University of Washington.

Sunshine, as he prefers to be called, has long been enthralled by the stories the prints tell.

“They reflect the customs, lifestyles and sensibilities of the Japanese people of the Edo period,” he says. “How did they enjoy traveling or celebrating special occasions? What sorts of gossip did they engage in? What sorts of cloth or patterns were popular at the time?”

Ukiyo-e prints have made a major impact on art history, influencing a broad range of artists, from British operatic dramatists Gilbert & Sullivan to Dutch impressionist master Vincent van Gogh. The prints featured in Sunshine’s presentation come from the Spaulding Collection of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, one of the world’s best-preserved collections of Ukiyo-e.

“A picture is really worth a thousand words,” Sunshine says. “Each and every Ukiyo-e woodblock print depicts a range of social, political and humorous elements with a grace and aestheticism that speaks to the Edo period and its love of nature and the arts, its social mobility and its economic success.”

NHK WORLD TV, Japan’s public all English-language channel, presents “Dive into UKIYO-E,” exploring the Spaulding Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, presented in Rakugo-style storytelling by Katsura Sunshine.