Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861, Japanese) was an Edo period master of ukiyo-e wood block print. His depictions included landscapes, beautiful women (geishas), Kabuki actors, and cats. Influenced by ukiyo-e warrior prints, by age 12 he had impressed the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Toyokuni and joined his studio in 1811. His first works were book illustrations and then he turned to warrior prints. Kuniyoshi was a popular teacher and Yoshitoshi, Yoshitora, Yoshijku, Yoshikazu, and Yoshifuji were among his students.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi was a great cat lover, and it was said that his studio was full of them. Often he could be seen working with a kitten snuggled up in his kimono. An apprentice, Yoshimune, reported that when one of Kuniyoshi’s cats died, he would have it sent to a nearby temple, and a Buddhist altar for his deceased cats was erected in his home. There he kept tablets with the cats’ Buddhist names on the altar.
Kuniyoshi’s love of his felines spilled over into his art. Cats fill many of his compositions and he even began to give Kabuki actors cat faces. Kuniyoshi’s Ume no haru gjusantsugi was performed in 1835. A cat has shape-shifted into an old woman while a cat wearing a napkin dances while a cat licks the lamp. The cloth on the cat’s head represents the folk belief that cats would steal napkins and would dance together and howl “Neko ja!” (We are cats!). Cats often times licked Japanese lamps of the period because they were fueled with fish oil.
Be sure to visit The Great Cat Store for a wide selection of Japanese prints with cats.
Several more similar depictions of the cat witch follow:
Utagawa Kuniyoshi also depicted cats in their every day activities as well as using them to design letters of the alphabet.
Koniyoshi also depicted the cat with priests and geishas (beautiful women). In the upper right-hand corner of the print below is the 9th century monk Bukan with a tiger. The monk was known to have ridden a tiger to scare his followers. Here he is shown awakening from a nap, and in the foreground a woman and her cat are also awakening from a nap, perhaps mirroring the Zen priest’s powers.
Kuniyoshi also depicted cats as people and as Kabuki actors.
Here a courtesan named Matsuyama and her lover Kyūbei are eloping. Items typically associated with cats such as gold coins and bells are on their kimonos, and clam shells and mackerel fillets take the place of willow flowers and their leaves.
The series Fashionable Cat Frolics written by Santō Kyōzan is based on Kabuki play parodies and was illustrated by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Kyōzan not unlike Kuniyoshi was also a lover of cats. Due to mid-nineteenth century censorship, paraodies such as this became popular. Actors’ and courtesans’ likenesses could not be shown, so to get around this, they were portrayed as cats. The above print is from the play The Stinky Sleeve, a tale about the Genji clan and Heike clan who fought one another during the Heian period. Here, a Genji clansman questions his lover Ayako concerning the Heike chieftain.