One doesn't venture long into the study of Japanese history before encountering the expression "Tenpô Reforms", words
which have huge import in the study of ukiyo-e as well. Tenpô is an historical period running from 1830 to 1843, near the
end of which, in an attempt to slow down consumer spending and improve government finances, the Shogunate promulgated a series of
One of the numerous misguided sumptuary edicts from this time ended all production of actor and geisha prints — though not warrior prints
because they were seen as morally uplifting — and for a period of five years (1842-47) the ban was
strictly enforced. This was a disastrous blow to the ukiyo-e print world, especially in Osaka which specialized in kabuki prints.
By 1847, when publishers in the second city started to test the government's resolve by tentatively issuing prints again — laws are rarely
removed from the books in Japan; enforcement just quietly lapses — the market had changed and many of the brilliant artists of the 1830s
had lost their spirit or retired. Osaka ukiyo-e was never to recover anything like its former glory, and as if to symbolize the
reduced status from here on out most prints were made one-half their pre-Tenpô size.
Figs. 1 and 2 help demonstrate the effect of the reforms. Fig. 1 from c. 1840 depicts a scene from a kabuki play by the Osaka artist Utagawa
Sadayoshi, (active 1837-53).
A typical pre-Reform print, the actor's name (Onoe Tamizô) and the role (Ogata Rikimaru, carrying a portable Buddhist shrine on a
pilgrimage) appear prominently in the box in the upper left-hand corner. The lower left corner has Sadayoshi's signature and decorative red
seal, and — in the small gourd — the name of the publisher, Wataki.
Impossible to see in the photo but very indicative of pre-Reform is the heavy paper stock that allows for blind embossing of the cherry
blossoms and liberal use of metallics and rich, saturated pigments (in the obi and under-kimono areas that peek out from under the
austere priest-like garb).