A collection of playful prints from over 200 years ago prove that Japan’s highly-refined sense of cute has a very long history indeed.

The images in this article, taken from two different volumes of artwork created by the Japanese artist Nichōsai (耳鳥斎), prove that the country has long been gripped by its enduring love of cute characters. See for yourself in this collection of prints, available now for free download as two different e-books from the Apple iBooks store.

The collection comes from two separate books made in 1780 and 1803. The earlier book, called E-hon mizu ya sora, consists of a variety of caricatures and other cartoonish images of well-known Kabuki actors of the day, rendered in a way that’s frankly pretty adorable. The second book of the series, which comes in color, is called Katsurakasane.

▼ Now these are some serious poses!


At first glance, there’s something very contemporary about these images, which seem to predict Japan’s recent fixation on so-called yuru-kyara (cute mascots).

But a careful look inside the cover of these books reveals that these were actually made well over two centuries ago during the Edo Period (1603~1868). So who was the artist that made them, exactly?

Nichōsai (c. 1751-1803) was an ukiyo-e artist and caricaturist living and working during the eighteenth-century around Osaka. The subject of Kabuki-actors and other popular figures was common for other ukiyo-e artists at the time, and it seems that Nichōsai was well-known for his talent at making giga (戯画), or humorous images.

▼ These are either exaggerated, or people were really creepy back then…


Nichōsai is identified in most resources as an adherent of the Kanō school of artists, who were responsible for a style of painting very popular with the Japanese nobility from the 16th century onwards. But little of that school’s bold brushwork and stuffy, classical aesthetic is evident in these cute little sketches of actors and dancers.


These charming, manga-like images by Nichōsai seem to share more in common with a contemporary, Yosa Buson (1716-1784), than any Kanō painter I know of. But that’s just a little art history geekery for you!

▼ Work from Buson, a clear influence and fellow painter of the cute


Make sure to download the books, because the rest of the collection is definitely worth a look. There’s something very human about this series, and it’s almost kind of comforting to think that people back then had a sense of humor and an appreciation for cute stuff despite all that tuberculosis and cholera.

You can download E-hon mizu ya sora here and you can get Katsurakasane here.

Sources:  Japaaan Magazine, Wikipedia
Top Image: iTunes/Nichōsai
E-hon mizu ya sora images from iTunes/Nichōsai, Katsurakasane images from iTunes/NichōsaiOku no Hosomichi images from Wikpedia/Yosa Buson