Japanese art and Keisai Eisen: the early life of this acclaimed ukiyo-e artist
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Keisai Eisen (1790-1848) learnt to be independent from an early age and he chose a path which was fraught with economic danger. In a sense, Keisai Eisen represents aspects of “the real Edo period” for individuals who resided in big cities in this period of history. This applies to many deaths within his family, poverty, uncertainty, and amidst all this chaos you had natural raw energy which manifested itself through the arts.
It is difficult for people in the modern world to connect with the reality of the old world. After all, infant mortality in Tokyo, Paris, Manchester, and all important cities in this period of history, was deplorable. Therefore, with the average lifespan being much shorter and the central state providing little in the way of cushions to help, then individuals had no time to dwell.
Of course, in all societies you always had “a small minority” who could enjoy the material comforts of this world. However, for individuals like Keisai Eisen, then the real world was about death, hardship, and seeing the world for what it is. Yet this didn’t mean “weakness” or “pity,” on the contrary, for Keisai Eisen this led to him being independent because he refused economic help from family relatives when he was a young man.
Keisai Eisen was born in the district of Hoshigaoka in Tokyo and today this applies to the Nagatacho area which is part of the Chiyoda district. His father, Ikeda Masabe Shigeharu, was a very interesting character. He was a low ranking warrior who enjoyed the finer parts of culture. This applies to enjoying poetry, tea ceremonies, reading, poetry, and writing. Therefore, this must have rubbed off on Keisai Eisen and indeed it was through his father’s friend that he apprenticed under Namiki Gohei.
Namiki Gohei was a kabuki/kyogen writer and when Keisai Eisen was a young adult he had hoped to become a professional kyogen writer. Kyogen applies to a form of traditional theatre in Japan. However, once more death within his family would impact on his dream and after this he focused on becoming independent and turned to the world of ukiyo-e and other means to survive.
Turning the clock back to when Keisai Eisen was a child then at the age of six he was adopted by his stepmother following the death of his mother. Therefore, when he was thinking of becoming a kyogen writer events turned against him because of death once more. This applies to the death of his father and stepmother in the same year when he had turned twenty years of age.
Given the circumstances of his reality and with having three sisters, then Keisai Eisen abandoned his dream of becoming a kyogen writer. Also, he bravely refused financial support from relatives who had wanted to help him. This indicates strongly that he was tenacious, independent, extremely determined, and pragmatic. After all, he had been dealt a difficult “deck of cards” but despite this he refused “any aces” which may help him in order that he could support himself.
Keisai Eisen distinguished himself in the field of ukiyo-e but his literature is also highly regarded. Indeed, some individuals believe that he was a ghostwriter for Tamenaga Shunsui and Yoshimi. These two writers of ninjou-bon (stories focused on ordinary people) were popular during their time but this theory is still openly debated. However, it highlights the quality of his writing to be linked with these two individuals irrespective of 100 per cent certainty.
Irrespective of what happened in the later years of his life it is clear that events during his young adulthood impacted greatly on Keisai Eisen. Also, the choices he picked when he was twenty years old, despite enormous adversity, were very admirable.
His artistic legacy is abundantly clear because he created many stunning pieces of art.