‘Great Nobi Earthquake’ series from the ‘Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6)’: aesthetic perception of a documentary narrative in Japanese souvenir photography

Ilya Leonov, Higher School of Economics, Moscow [About | Email]

Volume 23, Issue 3 (Discussion Paper 2 in 2023). First published in ejcjs on 30 January 2024.

Editor's note:  The following is part of an occasional series highlighting outstanding undergraduate research, and introducing young scholars with great potential to excel in their areas of interest.


This article examines the ‘Great Nobi Earthquake’ photographic series included in the ‘Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6)’ (Nagasaki University Library) as a peculiar visual representation of the eponymous event that occurred in 1891. The elaborately designed photographs evince a rather dichotomous nature, congenially combining a documentary narrative with a vividly ornate appearance. This visual complexity is analysed both from a subject perspective and in stylistic terms (primarily, polychromic colouring and compositional arrangements). Although the series can be considered as a thorough photo reportage, its formal features, as the article shows, largely derive from the style of Japanese souvenir photography established in the 1860s-70s. Moreover, in some pictorial patterns, these photos possibly relate to the 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints and, in particular, to their popular meisho-e genre. In this regard, the photographs represent a specific aesthetic attitude towards the depicted documentary scenes, which are rendered as decorative souvenir images, primarily targeted at foreign audiences.

Keywords: souvenir photography, documentary photography, Japanese photography, Japanese visual culture, 19th century


The Great Nobi Earthquake (Nôbi Jishin), which took place on October 28th, 1891, was one of the largest environmental disasters in modern Japan. With a magnitude of 8.0, it brought massive devastation to the approximate area of 45,000 square kilometres, affecting Gifu, Aichi, Hyogo, and Shizuoka prefectures. According to contemporary Japanese sources, the death toll exceeded 7,000 and nearly 200,000 households were demolished (Davison, 1901). Due to severe shocks and consequent fires, many towns and villages were levelled to the ground—as John Milne stated, houses fell along the streets like a ‘row of popped up cards’ (1891, Pl. I). Modern structures of the Meiji era, as well as traditional wooden buildings,  also turned out to be extremely fragile against the disastrous forces of nature. Brick factories and massive iron bridges, vivid manifestations of the officially proclaimed ‘civilisation and enlightenment’ (bunmei kaika), were heavily damaged or destroyed completely. The same drastic effects occurred in natural landscapes with the emergence of large faults, fissures, landslides, and even new bodies of water.

Unsurprisingly, the scale of such tragedy provoked a considerable response in the local media. Textual and visual reports about the earthquake and its aftermath began to appear in the first days and weeks after the event. The data came from various sources and took many forms—from newspapers and academic articles to prints and photos (Clancey, pp. 919-920). Such diversity of media documenting the disaster may be connected with the rapid modernisation of Japan under the Meiji regime. In fact, the Nobi Earthquake was one of the first events of such magnitude to occur since the lifting of the sakoku policy and, subsequently, the advent of modern press, academic publishing, and photography in Japan. In this context, local and foreign authors, journalists, and scholars obtained a much bigger scope for studying and interpreting the catastrophe.

This article examines a specific case of visual representation of the Great Nobi Earthquake—the eponymous photographic series included in the ‘Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6)’, which is currently held by the Nagasaki University Library [1]. The group of 24 images depict various views of the disaster: demolished villages, shattered bridges, ruined industrial structures, altered landscapes, etc. Presenting a broad visual narrative about the earthquake and its aftermath, the photographs can be considered a valid example of early Japanese photojournalism. However, despite their documentary importance, the photos possess distinctive aesthetic value since all images are hand-tinted with vibrant watercolours, and bound in an ornate lacquer cover with other pages of the album.
In terms of style, such lavish decoration is closely related to the commercial practices of Japanese photographers in the 19th century. It was specifically common for souvenir photography, which was the best-selling product distributed among foreign tourists in the Japanese treaty ports. Besides vivid polychromic colouring and rich ornamentation, its imagery was also characterised by the specific subjects, commonly divided into two groups: ‘views’ (well-known Japanese sites) and ‘costumes’ (in situ or studio-posed scenes of everyday customs) (Hockley, 2010; Wakita, 2013, p. 86). Illustrating the native culture in a rather exotic and archaic way, these refined images were the chief attraction to globetrotters and their primary mode of engaging with Japanese “Otherness.”
The most popular Japanese photographer of that time, to whom our album is attributed, was Kusakabe Kimbei (1841-1934) [2]. By the end of the 19th century, he owned the largest studio in the country located on Honcho-Dôri in Yokohama (Bennet, 2006, p. 206), was widely acclaimed by foreign clients, and had been the major trendsetter in commercial photography for almost 30 years. His commercial oeuvre mostly consisted of decorative photos of native sites and customs (which were often elaborately staged in the confines of his studio) and by the turn of the 20th century comprised more than 2000 images (Bennet, 2006, p. 206; Wakita, 2013, p. 49). Among this consistency of subject, the ‘Great Nobi Earthquake’ series seems rather alien and, arguably, possesses the greatest authenticity in comparison to the more habitual of Kusakabe’s works. At the same time, its exquisite design suggests that these images, despite the peculiarity of their subject, had a certain market value—presumably, in the light of local and international resonance created by the event. In this regard, the photos of the series can be examined not only in the context of early Japanese practices of photo-reportage but also as a part of a certain visual tradition, which can be described in terms of form, style, and its relationship to the trends of the art market. The aim of our article is thereby to dissect the semantic and formal complexity of these images: to classify their subjects, to define the aspects related to their documentary nature, and to determine the main artistic features, which shaped the specific perception of the documentary theme.

Subject categories and documentary matter

Figure 1. Railway Iron Bridge at Nagara River, Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6) (Nagasaki University Library, cat. 1619).
The correlation between the ‘Great Nobi Earthquake’ photos and the actual event is established by several aspects. First of all, every image of the series has an original caption, some of which still can be seen at the bottom of the picture on the library’s website. These labels contain information on the specific location (‘Ichinomiya’ or ‘Wakamori’) and indicate the destruction brought to the depicted scene by the earthquake (‘RAILWAY IRON BRIDGE AT NAGARA RIVER AICHIKEN, WAS BROKEN BY EARTHQUAKE’, Fig. 1). The text precisely defines the temporal and geographical reference of the photographs and, therefore, is very crucial to the documentary nature of the series.
Another important feature in this sense is the subject diversity of the images. Depicting various manifestations and effects of the catastrophe, they become a full-scale photographic report—an extensive visual narrative about the major incident. Such a format, however, was not completely uncommon for Japanese photographers of the Meiji period. On behalf of the government or at their own intentions, they often addressed significant events and socio-political matters. For example, they depicted public executions in Yokohama in the 1860s, the 1870s’ colonisation of Hokkaido, and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. Some images illustrated natural phenomena—e. g., the solar eclipse in 1887, or the Bandai Volcano eruption in 1888 (Bennet, 2006, p. 211; Tucker et al., 2003, p. 34). Nevertheless, there are much fewer known examples of documentary photos decorated in the style of souvenir photography. The only one we have been able to find is the image of a crucifixion, shot and colourised by Kusakabe Kimbei in the 1880s (Wakita, 2013, p. 114).


Figure 2. Kitagata, Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6) (Nagasaki University Library, cat. 1642).

Figure 3.Tenjindô, Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6) (Nagasaki University Library, cat. 1650).
 The series can be divided into 5 subject categories. The largest group consists of 10 images of destroyed villages (cat. 1623, 1624, 1627, 1630, 1633, 1638, 1640, 1642, 1643, 1650). Essentially, these photos emphasise the damage brought to rural infrastructure and traditional Japanese life. Significant space in these images is filled by collapsed wooden houses, road cracks, and uprooted trees. In addition, most photos depict the villagers as first-hand witnesses and victims of the cataclysm. They are shown either in their post-disaster activities —having a meal in temporary huts or inspecting the blockage (Fig. 3)—or in a first-hand interaction with the camera (cat. 1633 and 1642). Remarkably, the latter cases serve as excellent examples of the general ambiguity of documentary photography. While the photographer (ideally) is trying directly to portray the aftermath scene, the people break the spontaneity of the shot and stare directly at him, thus acknowledging the photographer and his camera’s existence.

Figure 4. Shichinan, Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6) (Nagasaki University Library, cat. 1646).

Figure 5. New Lake at Midori, Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6) (Nagasaki University Library, cat. 1649).
Another substantial group is formed by 5 photos of landscapes affected by the earthquake (cat. 1636, 1645-1647, 1649). These pictures can be defined by wide panoramic compositions, and, despite the tragic connotations, have a remarkably serene atmosphere. The effects of the disaster constitute relatively small portions of depicted scenes, and in some cases (Fig. 4-5) the only clear evidence of their seismic origin is the captions themselves. Without these references, the photos can be easily mistaken for ordinary picturesque views of Japanese landscapes, very common for souvenir photography. The view of the emerging lake appears to be the most contrived: the diagonally arranged boat, which does not have any documentary value, acts as a deliberately implemented visual cliché and assigns further decorum to the image.


Figure 6. Enshôji Temple at Kimbara, Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6) (Nagasaki University Library, cat. 1644).

Figure 7. Spinning Factory Near Atsuta, Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6) (Nagasaki University Library, cat. 1620).
The last significant group of 6 images portray the destruction of individual buildings. There are photographs of ruined Buddhist temples (cat. 1644, 1648), crumbled bridges (cat. 1619, 1622) and two modern brick structures—the post office and the cotton spinning mill (cat. 1620, 1621). It does not seem accidental that the author highlighted these objects out of their surroundings. For one thing, all these images are very evocative and illustrative on their own. Observing the damage brought by the earthquake to such large-scale structures, the viewer can fully comprehend the power of the natural disaster. Moreover, these photographs can refer to some notable cultural issues of Meiji Japan. For example, the Buddhist temples (as the sites of ancient religion) were naturally associated with traditional culture and values, which at the time took on a radically conservative and reactionary character (Clancey, 2006, p. 923). The constructions of brick and iron, by contrast, represented the exactly opposite idea of impetuous progress and modernisation, promoted by the Meiji government.
In these photographs, such antagonistic symbols of Old and New Japan, ironically, appear to be equally vulnerable to the destructive forces of nature. The fragility of traditional and modern Japanese life was perceived by many contemporaries as a ‘truly national catastrophe’ (Clancey, 2006, p. 909). In this case, the implementation of European technologies and building materials—sanctioned by the state, though seismically very unfit—was criticised as a thoughtless Westernisation. On the other hand, the collapse of rural temples often undermined the locals’ faith in the power of Buddhism (Clancey, 2006, p. 939). Among all the destruction, one of the few significant buildings that survived was Nagoya Castle, a monument of the vanquished Tokugawa regime. This socio-political context and the public perception of the disaster, in our opinion, could to a certain degree affect the modes of visual representation of the earthquake and its aftermath in the photographic series.

Figure 8. First-aid Station at Okimura, Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6) (Nagasaki University Library, cat. 1653).
Finally, several photographs do not fit into any large group. For instance, two images (cat. 1652, 1653) depict the first aid stations set up in Okimura village after the disaster. These shots can be considered the most documentary in the series. Their compositions do not seem to be in any way adjusted (Fig. 8). The horizon line is tilted, the figures in the middle are blurred and comprise a barely discernible mass of silhouettes, while the foreground feels disharmoniously empty. Furthermore, the people in these photos are depicted in their natural interaction without posing. The lack of artistry in these images explicitly separates them from other photos of the series. One of the possible explanations for their alien character may be that they were shot by other people (presumably, by some local photographers; see Milne and Burton, 1892, p. 9) and were later bought and added to the album by Kusakabe Kimbei or another editor.
The last photograph, which also stands out from the cohesive visual narrative, is an image of а dead body (cat. 1651). The use of such an overt depiction of death among more neutral views of disaster, indeed, does not appear very natural. Another paradox to this shot is added by the polychrome colouring. On the one hand, the colour makes the photo even more graphic. On the other hand, it stylistically connects the image with genre scenes in Japanese souvenir photography, although their appearance seems to be completely out of keeping with its brutal content. However, as mentioned in the introduction, images of death and violence were not uncommon in Japanese photography. The most well-known example is the photo by Felice Beato that depicts the severed head of Shimizu Seiji (Beato, 1864). Another case, more relevant to us, is Endo Rikuro’s photographs of the Bandai eruption (Tucker et al., 2003, fig. 9). Documenting the aftermath of the disaster, the author does not conceal the victims’ corpses but places them blatantly into the centre of the composition. In this regard, the photo of the deceased from the series, despite its uniqueness in comparison to other images, does not contradict Japanese documentary practices.

Artistic features and stylistic relationship with souvenir photography

Meanwhile, the artistic manner, in which the aforementioned documentary data are presented, merits a closer examination. From a certain perspective, the formal features of the ‘Great Nobi Earthquake’ series have equal (if not greater) relevance for the complex nature of the photographs, than the subjects they depict. However tragic and notorious the disaster might have been, its image was elaborately modified by the aesthetic program of a certain pictorial style and (presumably) became the object of the souvenir trade. In the following paragraphs, we would like to identify the stylistic patterns used by the author of the series and highlight their probable origins in souvenir photography and the visual culture of Japan at that period.
The main visual aspect of the series is its polychromic colouring. The bright and vibrant colours were the most favourable and well-known feature of Japanese souvenir photography. Many commercial studios marketed the brilliance and longevity of the paints they used; in addition, the famous (and mostly fake) ‘Japanese watercolours’ were advertised in Europe and America as authentic and high-quality materials (Lehmann, 2015, p. 83; Sharma, 2020, p. 19). It is assumed that the hand-tinting of photo prints was first introduced to the Japanese market by Felice Beato (1832-1909) (Bennett, 2006, p. 97; Wakita, 2013, p. 86). The Italian-British photographer is considered to be the pioneer of souvenir photography, since he established the genre in Yokohama in the mid-1860s. As his studio grew larger, Beato hired local artists to colour the prints, and his most famous pupil was the mentioned Kusakabe Kimbei.

Figure 9. Kusakabe Kimbei (attr.), Buddhist Priests, 1807s-1880s (Getty Museum).

Figure 10. Neodani Fault, Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6) (Nagasaki University Library, cat. 1647).
Generally, the colouring of early Japanese photographs can be described from two perspectives. Sometimes, it was applied in a quite decorative manner. In these cases, artists favoured the local stains of intense colours, which formed vividly picturesque images. Such an approach was predominant in the ‘costume’ photographs, where the motley garments and everyday objects produced exotic and oriental scenes of traditional Japan (Fig. 10). A rather contrary manifestation of colour, relevant to the images of the earthquake, is defined by naturalism, a precise and exquisite rendering of the details (Fig. 11). The latter was technically attributed to the character of water-based colours, which had high transparency and could be easily applied and mixed in thin layers. Moreover, due to (in our case) limited colour range—primarily composed of various shades of green, blue, earthy tones, and occasionally white—the images have a rather natural appearance, which can be associated with real views.
Meanwhile, some aspects of this naturalistic visual paradigm still can be regarded as somewhat conventional and fabricated. The rendition of skies, almost identical in all photographs, seems to be the most distinct one. Always executed in radiant blue, forming a steady gradient towards the horizon, the sky is presented as perfectly bright and cloudless. Similar unity may be observed in the colouring of vegetation. The artist used homogeneous shades of slightly dark green in the landscape images to indicate large masses of foliage, shrubs and grass. As a result, it creates landscapes which were quite unified in their ambience, as if they were trying to reproduce the decorative summer scenery on a sunny midday. Given the prevalence of such renditions in Kusakabe and his contemporaries’ oeuvre, they can be considered a crucial element of the souvenir photography style, very appealing to foreign customers.

Figure 11. Ichinomiya, Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6) (Nagasaki University Library, cat. 1624).
Another important stylistic feature of the photographs is the methods of their compositional arrangement. The most notable is the emphasised spatial depth, best seen in some of the rural and all landscape images.  In some cases (cat. 1624, 1627, 1636, 1642, 1647) this effect is constituted by the roads that go into the background and stretch through the entire composition. Acting as the mainlines, they are occasionally divided by vertical or transverse objects (solitary trees, houses, road cracks and faults), which accentuate the spatial stages and compositional depth even further. The same pattern can be found in other photographs (cat. 1633, 1638, 1643, 1645, 1646, 1650), where the composition is formed by overlapping architectural or landscape bodies (green hills or mountains), which also can be interpreted as spatial markers. In a quite peculiar way, these volumes sometimes group into steep overhanging masses which create a sort of natural frame by the sides of the image, enclosing the depicted scene. The composition, hence, turns into sort of a theatre stage and the original documental narrative becomes a large-scale play, based on the actual event.


Figure 12. Kuroda, Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6) (Nagasaki University Library, cat. 1633).

Figure 13.  J. Milne and W. K. Burton,  Life After the Earthquake (Milne and Burton, 1892, Pl. II).
At the same time, the actors (to continue with our metaphor) often occupy relevantly inconsiderable space in the scene. In some rural photos (cat. 1627, 1633, 1642, 1650) the villagers are depicted as rather static and scattered staffage, which does not develop any lively genre sketches. Perceived as minute fragments in the vast panoramic compositions, the people are deprived of any agency and individuality. In this regard, the mentioned pictures display the similar landscape-ish ambience that we have discovered in the topographical images of the series. Interestingly, this aspect distinguishes these photographs from the other well-known visual document of the Nobi Earthquake—John Milne’s and W. K. Burton’s photographic album issued in 1892. Several of their photos, entitled ‘Life After the Earthquake’ (Milne and Burton, 1892, Pl. II, VIII, XI, XXVII, XXVIII), have more spontaneous compositions and depict people at a much closer range, so the viewer can recognise their faces and conditions. In this sense, the Milne-Burton approach appears to be based on a more documentary and less sophisticated mode of representation, while the manner of the series in ‘Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6)’ seems far more refined, picturesque, and elaborate.


Figure 14. Kusakabe Kimbei, Shimonosuwa (Tea House) and Fire Bell at Nakasendô, 1880s-1890s (New York Public Library).

Figure 15. Kusakabe Kimbei, View of Miyanoshita, 1880s-1890s (New York Public Library).
In our opinion, this formal complexity of the discussed images originates from the methods of souvenir photography and, generally, the traditions of Japanese visual culture. Many of Kusakabe Kimbei’s ordinary ‘views’ feature not only an identical approach to colouring but also a similar attitude towards the composition: its scale, spatial depth and staffage. Great examples of this affinity are the photos of stations and towns on the Nakasendô (Fig. 16), which depict the pathway continuously stretched off to the background and framed by regular rows of houses—very similar to some photographs in the series (cat. 1627, 1630). Equally common were the panoramic scenes of rural nature, where the role of human figures was rather marginal and insignificant (Fig. 17). As one would expect, the same trends can also be observed in landscape images by Kusakabe’s renowned counterparts: Felice Beato, Raimund von Stillfried (1839-1911), Adolfo Farsari (1841-1898) and Ogawa Kazumasa (1860-1929).

Stylistic convergence with meisho-e woodblock prints

Remarkable stylistic analogies to the photographs of the ‘Great Nobi Earthquake’ series may also be found in other Japanese visual arts in the 19th century. In this article, we will compare the images in question to woodblock prints. Considering the huge popularity of this visual media at the time, it seems rather safe to assume that its prominent artists and their works had some influence on the style of souvenir photography. The meisho-e or ‘famous places’ genre is of particular significance in our case, due to its subject (the well-known Japanese sites) and frequent implementation of similar compositional aspects and, inter alia, the subtly developed spatiality (National Diet Library, 2014).


Figure 16. Shiba Kôkan, View of Mimeguri, 1783 (National Diet Library).
It should be mentioned that the latter is usually associated with the active adoption of Western pictorial techniques in Japan. After the lifting of state bans on foreign books and other printed media in the 1720s and the subsequent advent of rangaku (‘Dutch learning’), local artists started to become acquainted with European art and its principles (Mason, 2005, p. 432; Tsuji, 2019, p. 358). Therefore, linear perspective, three-dimensional compositions and naturalistic rendering began to appear in Japanese visual culture long before the advent of photography. The distinct manifestation of this tendency is the genre of yô-ga or ran-ga (‘Western’ and ‘Dutch’ painting, respectively; see Kobayashi-Sato, 2009). For example, the works of the Akita school artists—Shiba Kôkan (1747-1818) and Satake Shozan (1748-1785)—demonstrate sophisticated spatial arrangements like the compositions of the discussed photographs (Fig. 18).


Figure 17. Katsushika Hokusai, Lower Meguro, ca. 1830-32 (MET).

Figure 18. Utagawa Hiroshige, Goyu, ca. 1833-34 (MET).
Extending to the 19th century, this trend swayed the manner of many artists of that era. At its forefront were two major masters—Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). Best known for their meisho-e pictures, they made a considerable impact on Japanese landscape art and, as we believe, on the development of relative subjects in souvenir photography. Hence, the stylistic similarities between the works of the mentioned masters and the photographic series do not seem accidental. For example, several prints of Hokusai’s ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ (ca. 1830-32) and Hiroshige’s ‘Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido’ (ca. 1833-34) have elaborately staged compositions which combine architectural and genre scenes with wide natural landscapes. In Hokusai’s ‘Lower Meguro’ (Fig. 20) and Hiroshige’s ‘Utsu Hill in Okabe’ we may see the familiar scheme of elevated land masses that create a picturesque framing for the scenery. Moreover, also relevant to our series are some city vistas by Hiroshige—for example, ‘Goyu’ from the ‘Tokaido’ (Fig. 21). It depicts the street scene in the same overtly perspective manner, with the road acting as a compositional mainline (the picturesque feature we noted in some of the photographs). Overall, this stylistic coherence of the two visual media can be regarded as conformity in the perception of Japanese scenery in the mass-produced arts.


Figure 19. Katsushika Hokusai, Ushibori in Hitachi Province, ca. 1830-32 (MET).

Figure 20. Utagawa Hiroshige, Mitsukei Tenryugawa, ca. 1833-34 (MET).
In addition, some photos possibly evince more direct adoptions of woodblock prints motifs. The most plausible case is the previously mentioned ‘New Lake at Midori’ photo (cat. 1649). The similar pictorial pattern of a diagonally arranged boat appears in some of Hokusai’s views of Fuji (‘Ushibori in Hitachi Province’, Fig. 22) and Hiroshige’s stations (‘Mitsukei Tenryugawa’, Fig. 23), as well as in the works by their later counterparts—e.g., in Kobayashi Kiyochika’s (1847-1915) triptych ‘The Second Month, Matsuchiyama in Snow at Dusk’ (1896). Like the vessel in the photograph, the boats in the mentioned pictures are cropped at the stern by the bottom edge of the image, while their bows point inwards. Set up at a sharp angle, they draw the viewer’s gaze deep into the depicted scenes; therefore, the latter obtain explicit spatiality and compositional dynamic. Furthermore, in all cases, this directional dynamism contrasts with the large motionless water surfaces or with the empty sandbank in Hiroshige’s ‘Mitsukei’. In this fashion, the compositions are divided into several stages which additionally emphasise the spatial depth.

Figure 21. Inoue Yasuji, Illustration of the Opening of Azuma Bridge in Tokyo, 1887 (MET).
Another significant motif of Japanese visual culture presented in the ‘Great Nobi Earthquake’ series is the image of the railway bridge (cat. 1619). These massive iron structures, which began to appear in Japan in the 1880s, were amongst the most expressive symbols of the Meiji era. In this capacity, they appeared in numerous visual media and, particularly, in colourful kaika-e (‘enlightenment’) prints, which depicted various manifestations of the country’s rapid modernisation and, thus, advocated the state’s progressive policy (Hinkel, 2018). For example, the first iron bridge in Japan—the Azuma bridge over the Sumida River in Tokyo—was brilliantly portrayed in the 1880s by Inoue Yasuji (1864-1889) and Yôshū Chikanobu (1832-1912). The distinctive features of these prints, which connect them to the mentioned photograph, are the intricate rendering of constructive elements and the accentuation of the huge dimensions of the bridge. Its immensity is illustrated by the juxtaposition of its colossal volumes with the staffage and by depicting almost the entire length of the structure with a relatively minor perspective distortion. This scheme, also relevant to the Nagaragawa bridge photo, allows the viewer fully to examine the structure and comprehend its architectural scale. Thereby, the bridge becomes a significant and essential part of the depicted landscapes. In this regard, the photograph (as well as the kaika-e prints) conveys the pathos of the overwhelming (though heavily damaged) grandeur of Meiji modernity.


Figure 22. Utagawa Kunitoshi, View of the Nobi Earthquake in Gifu, 1891.

Figure 23. Utagawa Kunimasa V, Gifu and Aichi Provinces After the Great Earthquake, 1891.
Concluding with our review of 19th-century woodblock print analogies, we cannot omit the ones specifically devoted to the Nobi Earthquake, which, according to Gregory Clancey, were ‘the most vivid and widely-consumed “descriptions” of the earthquake’ (2006, p. 923). Despite the concurrence of the subject, these pictures paradoxically demonstrate much fewer formal similarities with the photo series than the previously examined examples. In these works, artists tended to depict fairly expressive and allegorical images of the catastrophe, rather than scrupulously to document its aftermath. Such an attitude may be seen in triptychs by Utagawa Kunitoshi (1847-1899) and Utagawa Kunimasa V (1874-1944). Substantial space of these apocalyptic compositions is occupied by recognisable manifestations of the earthquake: the mentioned iron bridge at Nagara River; a disproportionately huge brick chimney, cascading on a ruined factory; fire, flames, and giant fumes of smoke; and the miraculously survived Nagoya castle in the background. Moreover, in both cases, these objects are jammed together without any topographic accuracy. The vivid surrealism of the prints is also amplified by the unreliability of some depicted incidents. Such is the image of a derailing train—an episode, which, as Clancey states (2006, p. 924), was not accounted for in any of the contemporary reports.
In Clancey’s interpretation, the explicit emphasis on the fragility of modern Meiji symbols assigns the images an apparent political message. To many Japanese conservatives ‘the collapse of western-style icons’ (2006, p. 923) indicated the failure of the state’s progressive policy, which, allegedly, was not in any way suitable to the Japanese environment. In the discussed prints this idea is further affirmed by the contrasting comparison of devastated modern infrastructure and serene landscapes in the background, which seemingly represent the traditional Japan. If this interpretation is reasonable, these overtly artistic images turn out to be far more eloquent and relevant to the political context of that time, than the photographs of the series.
At the same time, the graphic character of these prints may derive from different sources. Images of destruction, violence and death were very common in Japanese art since the Edo period (and, probably, even earlier). Many Japanese painters and print-media artists depicted these subjects in a very brutal manner, openly displaying pain, blood, wounds, and dead bodies. For example, the scroll ‘The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa’ by the renowned Iwasa Matabei (1578-1650) features an ‘almost excessive, rough’ (Tsuji, 2012, p.15) rendition of the murder scenes, which is reproduced seven times with an obscenely ornate colouring and grotesque detailing. Similar overt vulgarity and viciousness may be also seen in 19th-century Japanese art. Among others, Ekin’s (1812-1876) byôbu with ‘Tosa Scenes’ and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s (1839-1892) series of the ‘Twenty-eight Famous Murders’ (1866-1867) were the finest examples of the violent and explicit imagery, which provoked (and attracted) many contemporaries. In this regard, the prints depicting the Nobi Earthquake, like the coloured photographs of the series, quite naturally correspond with the Japanese visual tradition. However, while the conventionally decorated photographic narrative was targeted at foreign viewers, the woodcut images with their peculiar style, apparently, appealed to the local audiences, which paradoxically makes them a more authentic (and, in a way, more legitimate) document of the disaster.


In this article, we have identified the key subject and formal aspects which comprise the complex, dichotomous nature of the ‘Great Nobi Earthquake’ photographic series. Occupying the middle ground between documentary practices and staged commercial photography, this series has analogies and prototypes in both visual media and remarkably combines their traits in a rather congenial way.
The variety of the depicted scenes and their spatial-temporal concreteness define the photographs as a comprehensive visual report of the disaster. We have distinguished three major subject categories: demolished villages, destroyed modern structures, and altered natural landscapes. Moreover, some of the images—the ‘First Aid Stations’ and the photo of the deceased—feature a particularly spontaneous and unstaged perspective, which further contributes to the documentary character of the series. The formal and stylistic execution of the photos, in turn, has its roots in the tradition of Japanese souvenir photography of the Meiji period. This connection is construed by the bright polychromic colouring and its rendering, as well as some compositional features (panoramic perspective, wide field of view, and accentuated spatial depth).
Moreover, the photographs of the series may be embedded in a broader artistic context of 19th-century Japanese visual art. In some photos, theatrically staged scenes and emphasised spatiality can plausibly be viewed as interpretations of similar motifs in meisho-e woodblock prints (particularly, the works by Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige). Besides, one of the especially picturesque elements in the photos—the diagonally fixed boat at Lake Midori—also has prototypes in the works by those masters and their counterparts. The same connection can be established between the photo of the ruined railway bridge at Nagara River and the kaika-e pictures of iron bridges, which may be regarded as expressive symbols of modernisation and progress, proclaimed by the Meiji government. Adopting the style and motifs of the mass-produced images, the author of the series (as well as other Japanese photographers) apparently sought to make their photos more familiar and appealing to the customer, thus, increasing their commercial value.
 Finally, we would like to outline the prospect of further research on these photographs. In our opinion, the most compelling direction would be the analysis of this series in the broader context of documentary practices in Meiji Japan. The study of the documentary photos and visual materials of that period, as well as various approaches to their creation, authors’ motivations, and public perception of these images may essentially enhance our comprehension of Japanese visual culture in the period of its substantial development and transformation.


The author would like to thank Elena Yakimovitch for her valuable advice and essential support, Anna Guseva for her excellent suggestions, as well as Nagasaki University Library for their kind permission to use the images of the ‘Great Nobi Earthquake’ series in this article.


1. ‘Kusakabe Kimbei Album (6)’ is available at Nagasaki University Library’s website: http://oldphoto.lb.nagasaki-u.ac.jp/global/search/en_list.php?list_type=list&pg=1&prc=sch&al=&cr=&ar=&arc=&col=&mk=&omk1=&omk2=&omk3=&slf1=&slf2=&slf3=&en_cov=&kw=Kusakabe%20Kinbei%20Album%20(6)&sch_title=&sch_original_title=&sch_ots=&cva=&order=0.

2. Unfortunately, we have not been able to define the authorship of individual photos of the series and the album’s provenance. Its title and attribution to Kusakabe Kimbei are based on the Library’s online catalogue information.



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About the Authors

Ilya Leonov is a 4th-year History of Art student at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. His academic interests lie in the field of history of early photography in Japan and, in particular, the rendition of documentary narratives in that media. He can be contacted at illnv.main@gmail.com

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