Jakuchū gajō

At first sight, the “Jakuchū gajō” by Jakuchū Itō looks like a hefty read disguised in a beautifully-bound cover. From the outside, the two thick volumes of the book can be seen. They look as if they each contain hundreds of pages. Upon closer examination, one can see that the pages are made from thick paper and there are not as many as originally suspected.

View of the book from the bottom. This photo shows the thick paper used to create the book and the raised texture of the ink printing.

No title text is visible from the outer cover of the book, which confused me because books are usually comprised of words. I did not yet know that this book was made of artwork. Additionally, I could tell that the book was thoughtfully bound, and probably wasn’t meant to be a children’s book by its dim and heavy look. The outer covering for the volumes is made from dark blue fabric stretched over a hard surface. The volumes contained in the covering are loose, and they are secured by the compression of the wrap-around nature of the binding. The binding contains two minimalist clasps that keep it secured. These clasps are made from a material that looks like a bone attached to a thick piece of string that sits securely in a looped string on the other side.
When held, the book is hard and heavy because of its many pages, but the fabric contrasts this weight with a subtle softness. Unpackaging the volumes creates a sense of suspense and then delight, as the book must be unclasped before the volumes are revealed. The covers of the volumes are made from a thin green paper that is wrapped over a hard surface. They are tearing slightly in some places, revealing the age of the books. They have titles written in Japanese that appear to be hand printed with ink based on their textured surface. Both volumes look identical except for one small Japanese character at the top of the title.
When opening a volume, there are two pages that seem to serve as a title sequence, printed with the same ink technique as the cover. Compared to the letters on the cover, the typography is surprisingly subtle and large, covering almost the entire page. The letters are impressively clean for printed text. I remember thinking about how hard it must have been for the author to achieve this effect.

The two opening pages to the book, the only pages with text printed on them.

As I flipped through the book, I became even more overwhelmed with the author’s mastery of this printing process. The book was filled with artistic prints which showcased clean thin lines. When I smelled the book, it smelled sweet, which surprised me. I was expecting the smell of rotting paper, mold, or mildew. The pages were made from extremely thick paper that had a rough texture. There were pieces of fiber visible in the paper, giving it an interesting texture that mimicked the veins of the leaves and flowers seen in the artwork. The inked portions were visibly thick and stood off the page. They were rough and made of small bumps where the ink had been captured in the paper.

This image shows a close-up of the paper and ink texture.

As I flipped from page to page, I noticed that the book was silent﹣it didn’t crack or pop, despite its age.
“Jakuchū gajō” consists of eighty-two ishizuri prints made by Jakuchū Itō, who was considered a master at this technique. This print process involves wetting paper and pressing it into a mold. Then, ink is applied to the raised portions and the inked paper is pressed against another sheet to get the final product. This technique creates a white on black print. Books were rarely printed with this technique, making the “Jakuchū gajō” unique. Itō’s skill with the ishizuri process can be seen in the thin lines created with the printing technique and the tasteful use of positive and negative space in his compositions. He has many other famous works including “Pictures of the Colorful Realm of Living Beings” and “Birds and Animals in the Flower Garden”. His artwork was even gifted to the imperial family in 1889. “Jakuchū gajō” is important because it showcases the mastery of a famous Japanese artist’s craft. The original book is also valued for its rarity, as few are available in the world today. The copy owned by the NCSU library is a reprint of the original 1768 version, and it is still considered valuable.
This book is a prime example of the individualist or eccentric style that originated during the Edo period in Japan. The Edo period is characterized by 250 years of national unity in Japan after Toyotomi forces were defeated in 1615. During this period, Japan was relatively cut off from the influence of the rest of the world because of a national seclusion policy. However, one Dutch trading post provided Western materials and artwork. A school of artists called the “individualists” or “eccentrics” were influenced by the patterns and realism of Western painting. They often focused on scientific studies of nature, as seen in the realistic flora and fauna in Itō’s work. Influenced by his father’s business as a vegetable merchant, Itō also repeatedly used produce as subject matter. Additionally, the “eccentrics” were unique thinkers that used unconventional practices or themes that strayed from the ‘official Japanese academy’ artwork at the time. Instead of portraying the ideal, perfect version of his subjects, Itō often shows the defects found in nature, such as decay, holes in leaves, or the asymmetry of a spider’s web. These characteristics make Itō’s “Jakuchū gajō” a model of the eccentric style.
“Jakuchū gajō” fits in with many of the printed books produced in Japan during its time. During the Edo period, woodblock printing was popularized. Woodblock printing was first used to reproduce handwritten scrolls and then transitioned to a method of mass production for artistic prints. These prints were often bound together as books, like the “Jakuchū gajō”. Jakuchū Itō uses these popular methods of the time to package and distribute his ishizuri prints. At the same time in history, other Japanese artists such as Katsushika Hokusai, Andō Hiroshige, and Torii Kiyonaga were also using the woodblock process. Additionally, Itō uses similar stylistic characteristics as the Japanese artists of the same time period, showing their traded influence on each other’s work. These stylistic characteristics include flat compositions and bold lines which can be seen in Itō’s prints in the “Jakuchū gajō”. These characteristics were common among the ukiyo-e genre from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.

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