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Catfish Envy (Masami Teraoka, 1993, woodblock & etching with hand-tint)

Catfish Envy (Masami Teraoka, 1993, woodblock & etching with hand-tint)

Masami Teraoka is a Japanese-born artist who addresses contemporary issues and mores with ancient Ukiyo-e artistic style. The results of this fusion are not only visually stunning but frequently droll & ridiculous as well. Here is a mixed woodcut/etching print titled “Catfish Envy” which has been hand-tinted by the artist. A risible middle aged samurai is trying to snorkel his way up to a contemporary international femme fatale who, in turn, is embracing a wily catfish. The young woman seems contemptuous of the old fashioned warrior–who looks quite out of breath and rattled. The catfish is an enigma, but he seems to have shades of the mythical Namazu–the earthquake-causing catfish god who lives beneath Japan (and who sometimes represents wealth caused by corruption). There is something distinctly nouveau riche and jaded about that catfish. The beautiful lady snorkeler has a disdainful and mercenary light in her eyes. Even the tradition-bound samurai seems like he might be a bit lecherous and silly (although we sense that the lecherous, silly, tradition-bound printmaker sympathizes with him). The juxtaposition of the centuries-old technique, the old-school sexual/class moralizing, and the modern sporting equipment earns this print a place of high distinction in the annals of catfish-themed art (even if it might be somewhat lacking in egalitarian humanist values).

Fukurokuju Disguised as Octopus (Kuniyoshi Utagawa,  ca. early 19th century Woodblock Print)

Fukurokuju Disguised as Octopus (Kuniyoshi Utagawa, ca. early 19th century Woodblock Print)

In Japan, the seven propitious gods are deities of luck, happiness, wealth and all good things. They are often depicted traveling on their treasure ship, the Takarabune (which is itself a major cultural symbol in Japan) which will sometimes suddenly moor at a town or province bringing overnight success and riches. Not only do these seven generous deities dispense wealth from their ship, they sometimes travel alone to find mortals to shower with gifts and boons.  In the above woodblock print, Fukurokuju, one of the seven propitious gods has disguised himself as an octopus, much to the raucous delight of two bystanders. The disguise is far from complete (!) which adds greatly to the comic effect.  Fukurokuju was a syncretized Japanese version of the Chinese god of the south polar star.  He was particularly affiliated with longevity and deep wisdom–a fact which makes his ludicrous antics all the more uproarious.  There is an additional pun/joke within the composition: in Japanese, people who are comically and completely bald are known as tako-nyudo (octopus monster).

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