This Japanese woodblock print is a triptych, which means that it is made of three separate sheets. Created by Utagawa Kunisada, it shows boats on the Sumida river in Edo (now called Tokyo) during a firework display.
What is going on here?
Pleasure boats jostle on the river during a firework display for the kawabiraki or ‘Opening the River’ ceremony. This heralded the start of Ryōgoku’s annual summer season, which officially opened on the 28th day of the fifth month.
Kunisada was the son of an Edo ferryboatman and was familiar with river life. During the hot summer, the Sumida river was packed with recreational boats including floating restaurants, bars and tea houses.
Visitors enjoyed a custom called yusuzumi, or ‘taking in the cool of the evening’.
In the foreground, a boat carries three women: two chatting to each other and a third gazing at the next boat over.
The object of her gaze seems to be the boatmen, sprawled on the roof. The boatmen appear to be listening to a haunting melody played by the geisha in the deck below.
Despite the vivid fireworks, it seems that all the people in the foreground are preoccupied with other people! Is Kunisada trying to make a point?
Symbols and meanings
The name of the boat on the right is most prominent and repeated on the lanterns. It consists of the word maru (丸) meaning ‘circle’, which represents perfection or completeness, or the ship as a small world of its own.
The word Ichi (-) means ‘one’. The other symbol is a little unclear, (old Japanese script can differ from the modern written language). In this context it is likely to be ‘river’.
In the centre panel, displayed on a distant boat’s lanterns, is the word maru again, this time with the Japanese character (kanji) for ‘accept, just, bear’ (as in to bear a load).
The Japanese have an old proverb, ‘Ichi-go ichi-e‘, which literally translates as ‘one time, one meeting’. The expression reminds people to cherish any gathering that they are a part of. No moment in life can be repeated. Even if the event reoccurs, the experience will be different.
Was Kunisada thinking of this expression when composing this image? Was he perhaps suggesting that some people were taking the frequent river celebrations for granted?
Author: Fiona Story, Creative Programme Officer