Ukiyo-e: Floating Island Idealism

So I made a big fuss about different standards for Eastern and Western game in the critical press. Mainstream outlets and more niche-focused writers alike criticize a literal strawman, an idea accepted without critical thought. In that spirit, let’s take an actual look at an aspect of Japanese culture to see where some of these differences might occur – ukiyo-e woodblock prints. We only go for far-fetched comparisons here!


Hara on the Tokaido by Hiroshige

For hundreds of years, Japanese woodblock printmakers worked in a thriving popular art scene. Their prints depicted heroes, villains and monsters, spanning every genre from satire, to romance, to horror. It was all part of Ukiyo, or Floating World culture. Inventive and fast-paced, Ukiyo culture was the big movement of its day. That tradition has continued through the centuries, down to our modern day, where Japan is still known for its vibrant creativity. This heritage is especially evident in Japan’s video game industry. Boss fights. Invulnerable heroes. Holy swords. Even the classic double-jump can be traced back to medieval Japanese legends.

Long story short: the Japanese games we love are just the new chapter in an ancient, enduring culture.

To celebrate Japan’s contribution to video games, illustrator Jed Henry has taken his favorite game characters, and returned them to the ukiyo-e style. Modern costuming has been traded for the medieval, but the essence of each character remains, proving that you can’t take the Ukiyo out of these modern pop icons.

Jed Henry, Ukiyo-e Heroes

Many claim that Japanese games just do not cut it anymore. They don’t speak to common elements of human experience like, say, a Western release. While one could merely chalk that up to cultural bias (and, in a way, that could work on both sides of the Pacific, granted), there’s a deeper compulsion behind the way Japanese games work into a long tradition of art known as ukiyo-e.

In the 17th century (probably around 1720), Japan experienced a relative period of calm. Finally recovering from the sengoku-jidai (the period of the Warring States which lasted for over a century), Tokugawa Ieyasu finally united Japan completely and utterly. As Emperor, Ieyasu did quite a few things of not, especially the removal of Christian missionaries (seen as a negative influence on Japanese culture) and the increase of schools, literacy, and learning throughout the provinces. This development of the urban culture manifested in a peaceful timeframe overall. Like in most cultures, times of recreation and “free time” rather than subsistence living meant an outpour of the arts, among these the unique woodblock print.

Probably originating in China, woodblock prints became the de facto artistic expression. Teams of artists would think of a subject and each performed a role in bringing the woodblock print to completion (conceptually or physically). Most were sold as we sell prints today of famous artists and themes. Think more Thomas Kinkade than Picasso here; these guys made money. One of the more popular subject matters revolved around a life of daily pleasures and wonderful days. They lived eternally in the present, as it were, not thinking of the cares of tomorrow. I guess this happens when human beings have too much time on their hands, but I digress.

People called it ukiyo, or “floating world”. In the tradition of Buddhism, the world struck the person who realized it as empty, lacking meaning, and ultimately evanescent. Desire remained an attachment to be removed. Yet, ukiyo really represented the tastes of middle-class Japanese – disposable income went to spending in red-light districts (and I don’t have to tell you what is done there, I assume), though interestingly artists were punished for creating explicit material. Rather, woodblock printmakers showed people in the higher strata of society doing interesting things (sumo wrestlers, actors, etc). They made what people wanted, and they were more than happy fulfill demand (after all, it was more an assembly line than anything else – mass production!).

To spend away your cares and worries and think only on the present and its pleasures directly conflicts with any Buddhist philosophy, surely, but that became the primary development. Woodblock prints, accordingly, displayed these same subjects of interest to the middle class. We call these ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world”. I suppose we could call movies, film, and video games our equivalent of said things.

Of course, the subject matter would seem to make it otherwise. Don’t be mistaken, though, in thinking that their subjects only ranged in hedonistic and pleasurable activities. Many ukiyo-e also dealt with popular subjects of oral tradition and religious traditions – namely, Shinto, folklore, and fantasy. Woodblock print makers exemplified the higher ideals of the Floating World in these prints: to elevate life above the simple and mundane. Thus, they produced works that showed gods clashing, monsters roaming, heroes fighting, and exciting looks into a world far from the normal. We could call it escapist, surely, but from what?

I’d say nothing at all. People looked for “fun” because urban development allowed for recreation. You no longer needed to do everything, or fear attacks from a rival daimyo to your province. In a way, it strikes much the same tone as contemporary cities – when so many people gather into a single small social space, your one job becomes the only job. Tales of excitement and intrigue allow for us to think of reality on a higher level – idealism, in a word (not philosophical idealism!). We either point to an ideal or create it (I prefer the former, given my Christian leanings), but both allow us to look to something, rather than create our own ideal.

Whether Jesus or Nietzsche, the nihilist or the Christian, everyone looks up to someone (or did previously, depending). In the ukiyo-e, Japan revived its ancient cultural traditions (lost with the influx of Buddhism) and celebrated its past even while looking towards the future. The mundane and the perfunctory urban life didn’t constitute the whole of reality; there were dream and ideals to be found in the world. While I understand when C.S. Lewis says:

What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’—could set up on their own as if they had created themselves…invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy

I also see that there’s another side to the coin. While Asai Ryōi characterized ukiyo-e as

…Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating…refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world..

I prefer to take the positive approach. I prefer to think that people do think higher thoughts about themselves and maybe, just maybe, that they develop a modicum of self-awareness to see that they’re not where they’d like to be. I’m sure every Christian on earth had this thought at some point or another – Jesus remains that intangible ideal, and we can only hope to trust in Him. To take the idea of common grace seriously, one sees Japanese culture and Japanese games striving toward an ideal where good trumps evil and everything works out in the end. Though it takes place in the floating world, the same principles apply to us in the here and now.

Or, as 1 Peter 2 says:

21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.

Even without being the original intention of said works, I find that as a primary resonance of video game. The difficulty, the challenge, and the story all combine to force us to overcome challenges. They’re imaginary only in the sense that they happen on a television (or computer monitor); to us video game players, the tactile engagement makes for a far different experience.

If Jesus remains an example for us, then our entertainment and our recreation should retain some part of that example – otherwise, what hopes and dreams do we fill ourselves with but the dreams of the dead? Do we inhabit a floating world of despair or hope? That’s up to you to decide.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.