Depicting a Japanese naval ship sinking a Chinese warship during the First Sino-Japanese War, Kobayashi Kiyochika employs a variety of tactics to display his scene in his The Japanese Navy Sinks Chinese Destroyers in the Yellow Sea (1894). Made as a triptych (three panel) woodblock print, the main focal point of his piece is a sinking Chinese battleship, with formal (rather than abstract) forms used to showcase the scene as faithfully as possible. Asymmetrical, the work is much heavier on its left side, where the sinking ship and its survivors are portrayed. It is through Kiyochika’s tactful uses of formal artistic elements that he is able to create a sense of urgency and sympathy within his audience toward the survivors of the shipwreck.
Scale is a critical part of the work as it shows viewers the true size and destruction brought on by the battle, most clearly seen in the survivors swimming to the water’s surface. By including these people in the piece, which at first glance seem like small dashes of a brush, the scale of the ship is put in perspective to viewers. Even at the surface of the water, one can use the people as a scale to understand the sheer size of the waves crashing next to the ship. Most importantly, this scale offers viewers a better perspective of the work as a whole, for it feels as if viewers are put in the survivors’ shoes to fully experience the surrounding destruction and chaos.
As a triptych, the piece was originally made in three panels designed to be displayed together. Displayed, one can see the way in which the work’s lines are disconnected, creating a sort of glitch effect in the boat’s outline and waves, which highlight the panel’s original individualism. Most likely, this effect is caused by the piece not being displayed correctly or, more simply, because the panels were created separately from one another and when they were put together the lines did not match up perfectly with each other.
In his works, Kiyochika uses line work primarily as a way to outline the subjects, as well as add a feeling of motion to his piece. Most prominent of these motion lines are found below the water’s surface, where they cut perpendicularly against the sinking ship and run parallel to the water’s surface. The use of these white lines depict a sense of urgency and intensity in the scene, juxtaposing the overall dull and muffled mood underwater. This juxtaposition is further highlighted through the color palettes, as the scene at the water’s surface contains vivid blues and reds, while below the water’s surface the colors are immediately dulled, as gray takes a prominent role. This dulled color spectrum makes the underwater scene seem like a muffled version of the scene above, making it seem as if two different, disconnected worlds are being shown. It is here that the white lines come into focus, as they juxtapose this dull mood, bringing the sense of urgency at the water’s surface underwater, helping to make the piece more cohesive.
Lines are also used as a way to outline the work’s major subjects. As the main focal point is the sinking ship, it makes sense that this contains the most amount of line work in comparison to ships in the background (which contain fewer outlines and details). The lack of outlines in the background’s ships shows their smaller importance to the work as a whole as they form a backdrop that gives viewers a more complete historical contextualization of the scene. It is not simply the faraway boats that lack an outline, as the three rocks at the work’s bottom corners also lack an outline, opting rather to be made of a darker toned gray than the water surrounding them. Again, it is clear that these rocks are simply done out to emphasize the scenery and add a limit to the water’s depth, creating a border to the work as a whole.
Line work also shows movement within the work. As previously stated, the white lines underwater show urgency while also creating a sense of cohesiveness. Similarly, line work is used at the water’s surface to emphasize the power of the waves against the sinking ship. Rather than outlining the waves, dashes were placed at the waves’ highest points to both emphasize their size as well as their power. Jagged lines are found across the water’s surface, which help to emphasize the roughness of the water, only furthering the intensity of the piece as a whole. It is only by using these tactics that Kiyochika was able to create the sense of urgency that the work gives to the audience, which in turn allowed for viewers to feel a sense of empathy towards the survivors.