The City by Night



Notes of discordance are discerned in Kiyochika’s picturing of new Meiji monuments and buildings in the Western style. Standard kaika-e, or enlightenment pictures, typically presented the city’s attraction spots in gaudy colors with a cartoonish touch, as seen, for example, in Railroad Train at Shinbashi Station by Utagawa Hiroshige III (1843-1894). In Kiyochika’s Shinbashi Station (1881), the locomotive is absent; the station building, designed by American architect Richard Bridgens, seems to recede into the shadows.

The true subject here is light. Kiyochika is more interested in describing how light flooding from the structure’s interior is refracted on the rain-soaked ground, and the glistening and shimmering aspect of the wet surface. What becomes foregrounded in this picture is the complex play of station lights, lantern lights, and light diffused through oil-coated paper umbrellas, and the resulting polyphony of luminosities.




Indeed, speed had become a central fact of modern life. With the invention of the steam engine, bodily movement and transport had greatly increased in acceleration. View of Takanawa Ushimachi under the Shrouded Moon (1879) depicts a locomotive train that seems to carry its ghostly passengers headlong into modernity and its attending displacements. Headlights beam forth from a metal railway lantern burning oil, cutting through the darkness. While Takanawa was once a celebrated moon-viewing site, here the moon becomes shrouded and rendered obsolete.

The first steam locomotive to run on the Shinbashi-Yokohama line in 1871 was a British model. Kiyochika’s locomotive, depicted with a diamond shaped chimney and a “cow-catcher” in the front, is in fact an American type, which the artist probably copied from lithographs published by Currier & Ives. In Kiyochka’s composition, the train is framed by two telegraph poles, marking Japan’s first cable communication system.




Moonlit Sea at Kawasaki (1879)




Another harbinger was the steamboat, which had quickly become an attraction on the Sumida River since it began operating in 1877. In Rainy Moon at Gohon-matsu (1880), Kiyochika pictured the steamboat’s twice daily passing at the precise moment when the moon became hidden behind fragmented rain clouds. An archaic pine tree looms monster-like, the last surviving of the famed “Five Pines.” The boat chugs by, casting light against a warehouse wall and pedestrian on the north bank of the Tategawa canal. The direction of the steam indicates that it is heading west towards the Sumida River.




Rainfall could also be expressed by making vertical creases down the paper using a baren—a printer’s rubbing tool fashioned from bamboo skin—as seen in Kudanzaka at Night in Early Summer (1880). With the establishment of Yasukuni Shrine in 1869, Kudanzaka had become a new landmark site, symbolized by a Western-style lighthouse. Purportedly built to appease the souls of those who had died fighting in the Meiji Restoration, it functioned also to guide ships in Tokyo Bay.

in his 1918 novella Black Hair likened the stone pedestal of the lighthouse to the fall of a woman’s kimono skirts, thus feminizing the aerial gaze over the city. In Kiyochika’s composition, what opens up is a swath of emptiness that calls attention to the subtleties of rendering “darkness visible.” Here a voluptuous curve of bokashi gradation has been swept across the rainy sky, giving alluring volume to the velvety texture of the night.




Somewhat paradoxically, the new technologies that so captivated Kiyochika gave birth to the category of “nature’s light,“ as opposed to “man-made light.“ Such distinctions had not existed before. The artist’s attention thus extended to the special effects of natural light phenomena such as rainbows during the daytime and, at night, lightening flashes. In Umaya Bridge (ca. 1880) an oddly shaped matrix of light throws out zigzag streaks of lightening. The telegraph wires radiate outwards as if trying to subdue and harness the burst of energy. In the distance, outlines of the newly constructed Umayabashi are visible. Two pedestrians are figured on the east bank of the river, on a stretch where the shogun’s horse stables were formerly located. One, using an umbrella as a shield, makes a run while the other, holding a lantern, cowers down, waiting for the danger of the moment to pass.


    Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
    Smithsonian Institution
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