Onchi Kôshirô (恩地孝四郎 1891-1955) was the preeminent figure of the sôsaku hanga (creative print: 創作版画) movement. Onchi used a varied and sophisticated approach to design, exploring figurative, abstract, and symbolic imagery through traditional and experimental techniques, both Japanese and Western. He was an excellent draftsman in the realistic manner, while his explorations into abstract composition stand as seminal in the development of sôsaku hanga. The printmaker Yamaguchi Gen once said, "Onchi was a vital artist ... he had the inspiration and passion of a great artist. He was the embodiment of modern hanga in Japan and our ambassador to the rest of the world. He was heart and mind....". Perhaps more than anyone else, it was Onchi who embodied the principle of self-carving and self-printing as essential to the sôsaku hanga artist. Even so, he contributed to several series for which his self-carved images were printed by others to be included in themed print series, as is the case with our example.
James Austin (Ukiyo-e Art, No. 14, 1966) wrote: "[The print artist] Hiratsuka recalls that this series [Tokyo kaiko zue: "Recollections of Tokyo"] was planned so that many aspects of Tokyo could be 'remembered by people for a long time'. In this connection, one must keep in mind that much of Tokyo had been destroyed in the great earthquake and fire of 1923 so that the city and its life which the artists wished to depict were, in many respects, rather new. One cannot help wondering whether they were intending, consciously or unconsciously, to record the current scene against the possibility of new disasters. They were, in a way, repeating what Hiroshige had done 75 years before in his Meisho Edo Hyakkei series."
Ueno Zoo, located in the Taitô ward in Tokyo, is Japan's oldest zoo, having opened in 1882. In one of the sad chapters in World War II history, in August 1943, the Tokyo administrator (Shigeo Ôdachi) ordered all the animals killed, fearing that Allied bombing might allow dangerous beasts to escape and terrorize the citizens of Tokyo. The animals were poisoned, strangled, or starved to death. In September 1943, a memorial service was held and a permanent memorial was constructed (rebuilt in 1975).
Onchi's design for Ueno Zoo first appeared in September 1929 as Dôbutsuen shoshû (Zoo early autumn: 動物園初秋) in the series Shin Tokyo hyakkei (One Hundred Views of New Tokyo: 新東京百景). It was recarved for a new set of prints that he began planning around 1943 to memorialize landmarks in Tokyo as they appeared before suffering destruction from the Allied bombing and subsequent fires. Likewise, the artists wrote in their introduction to the series, "... many valuable structures ... held special meaning for us.... As we stand in the midst of this devastation, we are silent because our feelings are inexpressible. The Japan Print Association has, therefore, through the cooperation of its members, decided to publish a series of prints to commemorate some of the features of Tokyo which have now disappeared. In addition, it would be a pleasure for us should we be successful in restoring the woodblock print to even a vestige of its former glory."
The complete portfolio of Tokyo kaiko zue totaled 15 prints. Fukazawa Sakuichi (深沢索一; 1896-1947), Hiratsuka Un'ichi (平塚運一; 1895-1997), Kawakami Sumio (川上澄生; 1895-1972), Maekawa Senpan (前川千帆; 1885-1977), and Onchi Kôshirô (恩地孝四郎; 1891-1955) all contributed designs used previously in Shin Tokyo hyakkei (100 views of new Tokyo: 新東京百景), which had been published in 1929-1932. The other artists each contributed newly carved works: Azechi Umetarô (1902-1999; 畦地梅太郎), Maeda Masao (前田 政雄 or 前田 正夫; 1904-1974), Saito Kiyoshi (1907-1997; 斎藤清), Sekino Jun'ichirô (1914-1988; 関野準一郎), Yamaguchi Gen; (1896-1976; 山口源) and Kawakami Sumio (川上澄生 also 川上澄夫; 1895-1972). The printer for the series was Hirai Kôichi (平井 孝一（市)).
Onchi contributed three prints: Tokyo Station, from new blocks, and Nijûbashi (Bridge to the Imperial Palace) and Ueno Zoo, from recut blocks copied after his 1929 designs. His inclusion of a recarved Ueno Zoo for the series Tokyo kaiko zue looks back nostalgically to a more peaceful time when adults and children could marvel at exotic animals and take comfort in the natural world.
Sets with all 15 designs are in the Art Institute of Chicago; Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh); Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, MA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Portland Art Museum; British Museum, London; and Ashmolean Museum, London.
- James Austin: Ukiyo-e Art — A Journal of the Japan Ukiyo-e Society, No. 14, 1966.
- Helen Merritt and Yamada: Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints, 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992, pp. 267-270.
- Helen Merritt, Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990, pp. 282-283.