By Howard Norman

To walk through “Kiyochika: Master of the Night,” an exhibit of woodblock prints by Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) at Washington, D.C.’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, is to experience the foreshadowing of film noir.

Gauzy halos of gaslight in the fog, men and women in silhouette, stark or shrouded moons, shimmering columns of reflected light on a river, kerosene lanterns and fireflies in an almost clandestine duet between the ancient and the modern, deep in the night.

In his genius for creating a kind of spectral moodiness, Kiyochika was not only a brilliant draftsman, he was spiritually ambitious as well.

Fireflies at Ochanomizu,” for instance, depicts, with a vanishing point perspective, the hidden reaches of a river, where floats a wooden boat, its cabin illuminated from within by lantern light; all around, fireflies punctuate the background of silhouetted trees like free-form scatters of braille.

Yet Kiyochika has fixedly placed, at the center of the composition, a constellation of fireflies up in the crepuscular sky. By doing this, the artist has elevated one of nature’s oldest ways of lighting the world to an almost mythological level of regard. And the city feels quite nearby, too, making the fireflies all the more a symbol of a flickering-out past.

However, mine are unlettered perceptions, merely amateur notes from a hopeful aficionado of Japanese art. Whereas to tour “Kiyochika: Master of the Night” with the gift of commentaries by Dr. James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art, is to be truly educated in the accomplishment of Kiyochika’s vision. Since I knew next to nothing, facts about Kiyochika’s life and work were each a revelation.

Still, Jim, in a few words, always got to the heart of things. He has a slightly formal, elegant way of making intimate the unifying and disparate elements of Kiyochika’s art, without the least bit of didacticism. His way of offering everything from esoteric anecdote to a wider cultural context calls to mind haiku master Bashō‘s concept of “wandering scholarship,” which leaves room, in even the most refined intellect, for surprise discovery at every turn.

"Fireflies at Ochanomizu"  (Image courtesy Robert O. Muller Collection, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

“Fireflies at Ochanomizu” (Image courtesy Robert O. Muller Collection, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian)

To be sure, Kiyochika made woodblock prints depicting daytime scenarios as well, which are immensely impressive. But it is in Kiyochika’s nocturnal world, the stylized sense of alienation, the almost violent light-filled tears in the fabric of the night sky, the powerful entrance of modernity in the form of locomotive cars full of the silhouettes of anonymous passengers, those ghostly fireflies, where he seems to most powerfully evoke a kind of inchoate anxiety, if not melancholy itself.

Kiyochika is at once grounded in the physical world and existential—for all of its immediate presence, his beautiful full moon seems also to contain the elegiac anticipation of an orb soon to be lost to us in daylight, therefore given to immediate nostalgia, at times even to a kind of erotic memory. In this he is a master of illuminated paradox.

Kiyochika is called Japan’s first modern artist. I think of him also as the first Japanese noir filmmaker, though in woodblock prints. It is startling to learn that Kiyochika was never formally trained as an artist. In his early 20s, he left Edo to wander the provinces, and nurture his drive to create.

But imagine this: When his self-imposed exile ends, he returns to find his hometown (now Tokyo) completely transformed by “railroads, steamships, gaslights, telegraph lines, and large brick buildings—never before seen entities that were now ingrained in the cityscape,” as the Sackler website points out.

The psychological and visual transformation he experienced was formalized in the woodblock prints we now see in “Kiyochika: Master of the Night.” As the brochure informs us, he collaborated with a publisher to release a hundred single-sheet woodblock prints of the rapidly developing city. Kiyochika recorded 93 views of Tokyo between 1876 and 1881, when a fire engulfed the city, ending the project. The Sackler exhibit presents 42 of the completed prints.

To declare favorites is to indulge, as the great novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki said, “the dubious expression of ignorance in the need for aesthetic hierarchies.” Still, I mentioned to Jim that during my six visits to “Kiyochika: Master of the Night”—and he graciously did not frown—I found myself lingering the longest with one woodblock print in particular.

“This print is in certain ways profoundly realistic,” Jim says, studying “Ryōgoku Bridge viewed from Senhonkui” up close, “not the least of which reason is that it shows a man at work, fishing. That’s an obvious thing, but beautifully rendered.” Jim stepped back and gestured at the work with quiet animation.

“You can see the undulating current,” he continues. “This is the exact place in the river where the saltwater meets fresh water, and was good for fishing…. You can almost feel the strenuous reaching of the fisherman toward the water reeds—perhaps [he was] trying to rustle up a giant carp or two, which were treasured delicacies in Edo period cuisine.”

Such is the perspective that a section of sky seems almost held up by one of the wooden pilings. “This is a study in chromatic variations of sky—you see what the fisherman sees when he looks up from his labors,” Jim says. “You can imagine the fisherman feeling the sky is slightly threatening of rain, maybe, or maybe not…[Kiyochika is] a master of creating atmosphere. And here again, we are placed at the outskirts of the city, and yet there’s a peacefulness, the expression of something older, an older way of life.”

When we reach the end of our tour, I want to say to Jim right then, but cannot yet put the experience properly into words, that no museum exhibit I have ever attended in the world struck such deep chords of solace and unease than Japan’s “master of the night.”

Howard Norman is Professor of English at the University of Maryland. He is the recipient of the Lannan Award in fiction. His most recent memoir is I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place. His new novel is Next Life Might Be Kinder.