Kanaki Toshikage portrait of Yoshitoshi
Yoshitoshi was born Owariya Yonejiro (米次郎), in the Shimbashi district of Edo (now Tokyo), in 1839. His father, Owariya Kinzaburō, was a wealthy merchant and samurai. The identity of his mother is unknown, although Kinzaburō’s mistress, apparently not wanting the share their home with the child, sent him off to live with an otherwise childless relative, Kyōya Orizaburō, when Yonejiro was about three. At the age of five, after showing interest in art, the pharmacist uncle (or cousin by other accounts) began offering the young boy art instruction.
When Yonejiro was eleven he was apprenticed to the great Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川 国芳) who gave him the art name, Yoshitoshi (月岡 芳年). Yoshitoshi’s first print was completed in 1853. Kuniyoshi died in 1861. Yoshitoshi’s father died in 1863. In 1863 Yoshitoshi contributed designs to the 1863 Tokaido series, created by the artists of the Utagawa School and organized by another ukiyo-e great, Utagawa Kunisada (歌川 国貞).
Many of Yoshitoshi’s best-known pieces are graphically violent and deeply disturbing — and then as now, audiences loved that sort of thing. Two of his most celebrated series were published in 1865, A Modern Journey to the West and One Hundred Stories of China and Japan. They were followed by the even more lurid Twenty-eight famous murders with verse, completed in 1868.
The Edo Period came to an end with the Meiji Restoration, which began on 3 May, 1868. As Japan struggled to put the violence of war behind it and hurriedly catch up technologically with the West, Yoshitoshi’s macabre woodblock prints fell out of fashion. After his commissions dried up, he and his mistress, Okoto, descended into a life abject poverty. Their situation was exacerbated when Yoshitoshi suffered from a mental breakdown.
In 1873 Yoshitoshi’s outlook improved and he began producing more art, which he began signing his works Taiso (meaning “great resurrection”) Yoshitoshi (in place of Ikkaisai Yoshitoshi). As newspaper production increased, Yoshitoshi found himself newly in demand as an illustrator, prized for his grisly illustrations which were published in accompaniment with crime stories. Although his work may have increased, he and Okoto still lived in poverty and in 1876 his mistress joined a brothel.
The following year Yoshitoshi began a relationship with a geisha, Oraku. As with Okoto, Oraku sold off her possessions to support the artist and herself and soon she too joined a brothel.
In 1880, Yoshitoshi began a relationship with a former geisha, Sakamaki Taiko, and the two were married in 1884. She had two children from a previous relationship, one of whom (Tsukioka Kōgyo) Yoshitoshi adopted and trained to be an artist.
In 1878, Yoshitoshi created a series of bijin-ga that scandalized members of the Imperial court. In 1885 he produced The Lonely House on Adachi Moor. That year a Japanese art and fashion magazine ranked him as the greatest ukiyo-e artist but the art of making woodblock prints was on a decidedly moribund course. Nonetheless, Yoshitoshi taught the dying art to new pupils, including some who would attain a good measure of fame in the 20th Century, including Toshikata Mizuno (水野年方) and Toshihide Migita (右田年英).
Yoshitoshi’s troubles again deepened after his home was burgled. Soon after he was admitted (and discharged) from a mental hospital. Even as he declined physically and mentally, he continued to be prolific and in his last six months of life he completed both One Hundred Aspects of the Moon and New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts. On 9 June, 1892, he died at the age of 53 from a cerebral hemorrhage.
In 1898, a stone memorial monument to Yoshitoshi was installed in Higashi-okubo, Tokyo. The influence of his style can be felt in the works of writers like Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (谷崎 潤一郎) and artists including Tadanori Yokoo (横尾 忠則), Masami Teraoka, and Koren Shadmi as well as a great deal of manga. Numerous books have been published both about Yoshitoshi and collecting examples of his works. Check out Yoshitoshi.net.