As a follow up to the last post where we featured the quintessential “Eastern” dragon, here we take a look at Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s “Mitsukini Defying the Skeleton” also in the Ukiyo-e style, painted in 1845. One might consider this the “quintessential Eastern Skeleton”.
As with the Hokusai Dragon in the previous post, part of the technique that draws the viewer in to this picture is the center balancing of the skeleton’s eyes in relation to both frame and content. While there are no pupils, the eyes appear stylized as if to be “looking out” at the viewer; imagine if pupils were placed, how the effect would be the same. Also, the rib cage and spine of the skeleton arc towards the eyes which invokes “cresting wave” imagery that is common in Ukiyo-e work. In this picture the eyes serve as the peak of the crest.
For more evidence of “the cresting wave” take a look at the arc of the skeleton’s neck and how his jaw hangs down. If you were to super impose a “flesh human” over this skeleton, it would appear out of place almost so much as to ruin the picture. However, if you were to super impose a tidal wave, the effect of the picture might be almost the same; one of man facing something unstoppable, almost supernatural. Lastly, consider how the tatami mats and “braided wall” look almost like the bow of a ship. If the skeleton were a wave, the picture would still be dramatic as man in the midst of a dark storm, about to face off with nature itself.
A word on color. The majority of the painting is dark with the skeleton almost fulfilling the role of “light source.” You’ll notice that Mitsukini’s skin tone is the same as the bones of the skeleton, as is the geisha (or princess) on the far left. In real life, when we look upon the world, light (whether brightness or shade) will unite the world around us, causing a certain uniformity of shapes, or unity in terms of reflections. In other words, in the real world, we are quickly able to gain our bearings based simply on light and shade. If you were lost in the desert and fooled by a mirage, it’s because your mind tried to make sense of light and shade in the only way it could. In artwork, especially in this piece, color fulfills the purpose of light and also makes us feel as if we are part of the image.