An Edo era cheat sheet to shadow puppetry
Today’s new Vintage Edition comes by way of legendary Japanese ukiyo-e master Utagawa Hiroshige, but don’t be fooled by its fancy street cred: Eight Shadow Figures is here for the fun. Shadow puppetry is a certified art form, but for many of us it also packs a nostalgic punch, stirring up memories of summer camp, backyard tent hangs, sheet forts and flashlights. Feels right for the season and the moment and the being-together-again-to-entertain-each-other-ness. And those primary colors! So celebratory. Almost makes us press pause on practicing the hand gestures. (Almost.)
This surely does not cross the minds of kids fixing their fingers into bunnies and birds for their bunkmates to enjoy, but shadow play is an ancient form of storytelling, likely originating in Asia and dating back to the 1st millennium BCE. When Hiroshige created Eight Shadow Figures in 1842, toward the end of the Edo period, the woodblock print was part of his New Edition of Shadow Making series. These were widely considered omocha-e play-prints or “toy pictures”—an undersung genre of ukiyo-e designed with children in mind (but likely enjoyed by art lovers of all ages).
Forming shadow figures with various hand gestures was a common pastime for kids of the era. (Some even consider it an early type of Japanese anime.) Prints like Eight Shadow Figures would have helped wee ones hone their shapes—in this case, from behind a translucent shoji screen. The eight patterns pictured here (clockwise from upper right) model a turtle on a rock, a man wearing a hat, a rabbit, a shachihoko (a mythical creature with the head of dragon and the body of a dolphin), an owl, a fox, a snail, and a crow. Quite the motley crew! There’s also written instructions walking would-be puppeteers through movements: “open your fingers within your sleeve to move the owl’s wings,” “draw up your knee for the fox’s back,” “move the chopsticks up and down [snail].” One print, hours of entertainment—and if you ask us, that effect’s still going strong.
The original Eight Shadow Figures was made using nishiki-e, a multicolored woodblock printing technique primarily seen in ukiyo-e. Before nishiki-e was invented in the 1760s, most prints would have been in black and white, colored by hand, or with one or two color ink blocks, but the new technique enabled Hiroshige to print with a range of tones, producing a more playful final product, one that clearly distinguished between shadow figure and hand form. We’ve yet to see anyone resist the urge to immediately contort their hands into the print’s prescribed shapes. Eight Shadow Figures is fun, colorful, clever, and classic, a conversation starter if we ever saw one—beyond a shadow (puppet) of a doubt.
With art for everyone,