Pictures of the Floating World

Japanese Edo era wood prints, often called “Ukiyoe” (although that term actually refers more specifically to portraits of women and actors), are known for their influence on European artists like Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Klimt, and Lautrec. Henri Rivière recreated the composition of “Thirty Six Views of Mt. Fuji” in his landscape prints. After a long, roundabout tosses and passes of influence, it eventually influenced the framing of Dustin Hoffman’s face under Anne Bancroft’s leg in the movie The Graduate. Akira Kurosawa tried to recreate the flat, shallow-depth atmosphere by the use of telescopic lenses. The trivia relating to the chain of influences is endless.

I have often read the term “ukiyoe” translated as “pictures of the floating world” with little or no explanation as to what the “floating world” refers to. And in order to explain that to you, I think I need to take you out for a beer at an izakaya. Preferably, one of those places where you take your shoes off at the entrance and put them in an old fashioned wooden shoe locker marked with hiragana. The first locker is designated “i” (い), the second “ro”(ろ), the third “ha”(は) and so forth. The “i-ro-ha” is the Japanese equivalent of “A-B-C”. But wait a minute. Isn’t the order of the hiragana table “a-i-u-e-o” (あいうえお)? That is actually the gojuon order popularized in the late 19th century (and the order to which all Japanese dictionaries conform). Up until then, for many centuries, the Japanese leaned their version of the alphabet in the order of “i-ro-ha”.

The “i-ro-ha” order is actually a poem, most likely written some time in the 11th century, which uses all of the 47 classic hiragana just once. The Japanese had been learning their writing for nearly a thousand years based on this poem. Consequently, this poem had been engraved into the subconscious of the Japanese psyche even though most people probably never thought about its underlying meaning very often.

A somewhat clumsy English translation of the poem in Wikipedia reads thusly:

Although its scent still lingers on
  the form of a flower has scattered away
For whom will the glory
  of this world remain unchanged?
Arriving today at the yonder side
  of the deep mountains of evanescent existence
We shall never allow ourselves to drift away
  intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.

It sounds a bit forced. In fact, I suspect it has been deliberately mistranslated to sound more upbeat than the original. Words like “scent still lingers on”, “the form of a flower”, “the glory of this world” and “we shall never allow ourselves” do not appear in the original poem. The actual poem only says:
“The bloom is all gone, but does anything ever last? The mountains of perishable reality we cross today are but shallow dreams not enough to get drunk on.”
It just means that all of our mountainous accomplishments in the material world are as fleeting as the brief blossoming of flowers destined to vanish into oblivion and meaninglessness. The Japanese have been reciting this anthem of existential angst from an early age for nearly a millennium. No wonder the modernizers changed it.

This depressing outlook has lead the medieval writers to refer to the “material world” (as opposed to, say, the afterlife) as “ukiyo” (憂き世), or “the melancholy world”. Try to digest the idea that, if you are not dead yet, you are in the melancholy world. Fast forward about six centuries to the Edo period, which began about the time the King James’ Bible was conceived, or about a hundred and seventy years before the Declaration of Independence, and the thought of dwelling in the melancholy world began to weigh people down. So they changed the lettering of “ukiyo” (憂き世) to “ukiyo” (浮き世), “the floating world”. It still meant the same thing. “Floating” conveyed impermanence and implied that things were less than grounded. But it also added a notion that things were not all that heavy. We are impermanent, like the shapes of floating clouds in the sky, destined to disappear, but unique and beautiful for as long as it lasts. It added the lightness of being.

The word “ukiyo” is often coupled with other words like “ukiyo no sadame” (浮き世の定め), “the destiny of the floating world”, to mean death. Or “ukiyo banare” (浮世離れ), “detachment from the floating world”, to mean “unrealistic”. If, for example, you told your parents that you would like to go to Hollywood to become a movie star rather than to take over your father’s successful plumbing business, your father might respond that your mind has lost it’s mooring to the floating world. It pretty much conveys his opinion of your loony idea.

Getting back to the subject of wood prints, when people say “ukiyoe” you might conjure the image of Hokusai‘s Mt. Fuji framed in monstrous waves, but the vast majority of “ukiyoe” were pictures of popular geishas, oirans, and kabuki actors, Hollywood stars of their time. They were inhabitants of an otherworldly place. You might sense that there is a double meaning at play here. The term that originally signified the material world as opposed to the conceptual worlds like the afterlife, had taken on a tinge of unreality. The floating world is no longer just impermanent, it is also somewhat odd and surreal. The idea that the real world is at the same time the floating world is an acceptance that the world sometimes makes no sense. Like death, fate, melancholy, and dreams, the things in the world befall us without warning or logic. And the idea of the “floating world” accepts that.

I recently took up writing for an online travel magazine about Japan. One of the things you are encouraged to experience during your visit to Japan is to climb Mt. Fuji. Over two hundred thousand people climb the volcano every year. Think of all the people huffing and heaving up the trail of the mountain, 3776 meters from sea level to the peak. And then think of Hokusai’s prints framing Mt. Fuji under a bridge, or under a wave. And think all of this is just a scene from a floating world.


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