Nothing so distinguishes Japanese print-makers of the modern era as does their persistent interest in depicting light. This was particularly fundamental to their treatment of city and landscapes. Since the seventeenth century the woodblock print had been the favored vehicle for rendering Japan’s energetic life of urban theater and bordellos, but beginning in the late eighteenth century landscapes provided an alternative to that introspective world, suggesting the increasingly more expansive interests of the audience.
Pre-modern printmakers (pre circa 1875) identified a discernible canon of recognizable geographic places; modern printmakers, however, emphasized the exploration of mood and atmosphere in place. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915), perhaps the most important innovator in the landscape genre of the modern era, set the visual agenda by attending to the modern night, then newly accessible by electric light.
His nocturnes—experiments in depicting a range of light sources in darkened environments—offered alternatives to photography and, indeed, new ways of looking at familiar places. Kiyochika gave primacy to the mood of place. His initiative spurred artists of the later shin hanga generation to explore the thematic possibilities inherent in night scenes and light in all its manifestations. Their carefully created atmospheres cast a soft, gentle scrim on their already romanticized views of an idealized Japan that was swiftly changing.