Ukiyo-e (floating world) is a specific style of Japanese painting produced by woodblock prints which was popular between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. This style mostly featured landscape, theater, pleasure quarters, and history motifs. There are other styles of Japanese woodblock prints, but Ukiyo-e is the most popular. The themes of this artwork are conceptions of evanescent worlds, fleeting beauty, and the impermanent realm of dreamy entertainments. The subjects in ukiyo-e are divorced from all of the boring and mundane responsibilities of everyday life. This art encourages people to live in the moment and to turn their entire focus on the pleasure that is provided by the moon, cherry blossoms, snow, maple leaves, wine, and song. According to the artists of this movement, people should refuse to be disheartened by the burdens of everyday life.
The Ukiyo-e art form achieved popularity in Edo (now Tokyo) in the latter half of Japan's seventeenth century. The first Ukiyo-e artworks were pictures of Hishikawa Moronobu in the 1670s. These pictures were all monochromatic. The first prints were made with only India ink, but gradually, people started painting them manually with brushes. In the eighteenth century, Suzuki Harunobu came up with a new technique to use polychrome printing and created a new techniques called nishiki-e.
The great thing about ukiyo-e art was that it was very affordable to purchase. This was because the artwork could easily be mass produced. The art was mainly intended to be sold to townsmen. These were people who were not generally wealthy and could not afford to buy original paintings. City life, especially scenes and activities that took place in the entertainment district, was the focus of the first ukiyo-e artwork. Huge sumo wrestlers, enticing courtesans, and famous actors were depicted performing appealing activities. Later, landscapes gained popularity as subject matter for sanctioned artwork. The appearances of political figures or people who occupied more prestigious positions in society were rarely seen in ukiyo-e works.
Midway through the eighteenth century, new techniques were invented that allowed the images to be printed in full-color. The images that were produced during this period of time and later are still sold on many modern postcards and calendars. The biggest artists of this period were Utamaro, Hokusai, Sharaku, and Hiroshige. Kitagawa Utumaro was famous because of how he depicted beautiful women who were found in the tearooms, pleasure quarters, and shops around Edo. He is also renowned for designing many of history's most gorgeously-illustrated books. Katsushika Hokusai was famous for the natural scenes he depicted. His series 'Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji' is very well-known in Japanese culture and started an entire landscape ukiyo-e style. He produced one of the most recognizable pieces of art in all of Japanese culture, which depicts a massive wave rolling over hapless fishing boats (The Great Wave of Kanagawa).
Ukiyo-e prints are still a huge part of Japan's cultural identity. Many elements from well-known pieces are incorporated in modern works. Reproductions of ukiyo-e can be found with ease and for reasonable prices at souvenir shops. They are perennial favorites of visitors to Japan.