Monday, 21 June 2010

Crime, suicide, sex, heroes… and treaty-signing


Around 135 years ago, these "tabloid" (to retrospectively impose a modern term) newssheets had a short life. Now they look startling. The publishers took a dramatic event or scandal of the day and printed the report from hand-carved woodblocks to sell as a picture-dominated edition. And they did it daily. By today's daily, instant, paparazzi standard's they're works of art. (Of course, there is no lineage from these newssheets to modern paparazzi, and, further, as illustrations these editions often revealed stories that our modern-day photo-real paparazzi can't even approach).

The examples here are from the Tokyo Nichnichi Shimbun – "Tokyo Daily Newspaper". (There were other so-called news nishiki-e – a term which reflects the style of printing – in Tokyo and Osaka.) There was a Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun in the standard format of newspapers of the time, but this short-lived (1874-1875) picture edition of the same name printed "alongside" the actual paper – although in fact created by writers and illustrators from the paper it was unconnected in ownership and publisher.

This separate, namesake edition took stories from the news, and reproduced them a day or two after the newspaper report. So the carvers worked daily but the news was from a couple of days earlier. The whole woodblock is hand-carved – including the words in reverse for printing, of course. The sheer energy and perverse attraction is stunning.

There's no particular timeliness to this posting. Except, I can't help seeing something of a parallel with modern times. Woodblock printing was declining, and the newspaper nishiki-e gave those craftsmen/artists daily employment and profit (even if for a short time). Just as the newspaper industry in print form is facing threat today (although, last week a report said 90 percent of Japanese still read newspapers in print). Of course, the newspaper industry in general is not exactly an art form like woodblock printing, but what followed these newspaper nishiki-e was not necessarily an "improvement" (even if continuous publishing since then until now might not be a "better" choice either). Perhaps there's just a small reminder that the loss of one form for the inevitable progress to another is not inherently "good", that's all. If the art of newspapers in print is dying out, what could newspaper designers do now to display their talent in print with a bang rather than a whimper?

Click the images below for larger pictures.

Top, sumo wrestlers help put out a fire

Woman thrown from boat, saved from drowning


Disgruntled employee slashes fellow workers


Police catch an armed burglar


Treaty signed in Peking between China and Japan


A couple strangle the officer who'd apprehended them


Physician – who marries for dowries he doesn't return – tortures wife

I first saw these papers in a Chiba Art Museum exhibition in 2008. (Another example of local exhibitions beating the central ones in historical collections.) Pictures here are from Waseda University site. You can find out and see much more on researcher William Wetherall's site. Meanwhile, by the way, the main Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun went on to become the Mainichi Shimbun, one of Japan's main newspapers today.

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