For the Sunday before bonfire night, an appropriately incendiary depiction of fireworks by the great Japanese master of woodblock printing Ando Hiroshige. Fireworks over Ryogoku Bridge was part of a famous series of popular prints, collectively entitled One Hundred Famous Views in Edo, which the artist worked on from 1856 until 1858, the year of his death. Hiroshige referred to the sequence as a whole as his “grand farewell performance”, a description which seems to fit the picture reproduced here particularly well.
Edo, now Tokyo, was the city in which Hiroshige was born and worked all his life, although it would be wrong to think of it as a city in the modern, Western sense of the word. Densely built-up areas co-existed with rice paddies, parks and orchards, giving a varied and picturesque effect in which the works of man and nature merged. Unlike typical European cities, Japanese settlements were not traditionally bound by walls, partly because the Japanese had no equivalent to the ancient Western idea that city and country are essentially opposed. Ruled by the Tokugawa shogun, the society of Edo was organised on strict hierarchical principles and run as a virtual police state. A large part of Hiroshige’s market was made up of the urban poor, artisans or unskilled workers who could afford the price of a bowl of noodles for a coloured print to brighten up their lives. Many of the “famous places” that he depicted – meisho in Japanese – were parts of Edo to which such people went for relaxation and release from the strictures of their highly ordered society.
Fireworks over Ryogoku Bridge shows Edo society in holiday mood, gathered at one of its favourite “famous places”, the second largest bridge over the Sumida River and the centre of what was in effect the city’s carnival district. All sorts of amusements and festivities took place around and on the bridge, on land and by water. During the months of summer and autumn, the river was open to evening use by pleasure boats and Hiroshige shows a so-called yakatabune, or “palace-boat”, decorated with bright orange and black paper lanterns, which only the very richest of Edo’s merchants could afford to hire, as well as a number of smaller craft including several of the floating snack bars that plied their trade up and down the river. He also shows one of the night-time firework displays for which Ryogoku bridge was famous, abbreviating the flare of a rocket and the explosion of its charge to a delicate ribbon of colour and a stylised burst of stars.
Like modern-day Tokyo, Edo was stiflingly hot and humid in the summer, which helps to explain the popularity of the custom known as nokyo, or “taking in the cool of the evening” close to the riverside. For the most refined and heightened enjoyment of this experience, the place to be was not among the teeming multitudes on the bridge itself, but in one of the retaurants of Yanagibashi, above and a little north-west of it. That is perhaps the viewpoint which Hiroshige has adopted in his picture of the scene. He captures the look, the feel, the colour and almost the texture of the short-lived pleasure that is his subject – a brief but delicious moment of release from the heat and bustle of daily life, enlivened by the beautiful but transient spectacle of fireworks exploding in the velvet blue of dusk.
Hiroshige’s views of Edo are lent additional poignancy by the fact that the world which they depict was to disappear within a generation or two of his death. Yokohama harbour was opened to foreign trade in 1859, bringing with it a tidal wave of western influences and technologies that soon transformed the urban and social landscape of old Edo. During the artist’s lifetime Japan was already in a state of flux, as the advent of a money economy steadily impoverished the feudal lords, the samurai classes, while enriching the merchants, who were traditionally at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Those at the apex of the pyramid of the samurai estate remained wealthy enough, but the vast majority – those typically described as “lower” samurai – lived on shrinking hereditary stipends that had become increasingly inadequate for even their basic needs. It was into this lowly paid class that Hiroshige was born, the son of a shogunal retainer whose job was that of a fireman of the doshin rank. It was a hereditary position to which Hiroshige succeeded when he was fifteen years old, on his father’s death, and although there is only one surviving scrap of evidence concerning his life as a fireman for the shogun – a commendation that he received for bravery in fighting a fire on a winter’s night in 1818 – it was a job that he continued to do for most of his working life. He was in direct command of a group of gaen, brave but unruly men with full-body tattoos whose fire-fighting costume consisted of nothing but a loincloth.
Like any other fireman Hiroshige had a lot of spare time, and his work producing woodblock illustrations was, in essence, an odd job to make ends meet. By the time he created One Hundred Views in Edo he had retired from shogunal service, although he perhaps continued to look at the world through a firefighter’s eyes. The subject of the picture reproduced here is, after all, a fire hazard, and it has even been suggested that the characteristically elevated point of view of many of Hiroshige’s prints had its origins in his day job. Apparently the firemen of Edo kept watch over the city from tall wooden towers, placed strategically to give them commanding views of the city.
But there may also be a less prosaic explanation for the distinctive bird’s-eye-view framing of the picture, which with its transient subject matter suggests detachment while also strike a rather solemn note of elegy. Hiroshige had lost his wife and his only son in the 1840s and in later life he took Buddhist vows renouncing all the things of this world. The firework that flares in darkness may have signified, to him, the briefness and fragility of all life. I might be imagining it but it seems to me that this image of festival exuberance is shadowed by a powerful sense of melancholy, and renunciation.