As cultural mash-ups go, Japanese hip-hop fans in blackface are decidedly strange.

When she first encountered them, New York painter Iona Rozeal Brown, who is African-American, felt a surge of pride at hip-hop's international appeal but thought it was "a little offensive" that Japanese teens sporting dreadlocks and cornrows were hanging out in tanning parlors to darken their skin. Called ganguro, which literally means "black face," the phenomenon is so popular that Brown turned out a series of pictures of blackfaced Japanese hipsters in traditional contexts -- gangsta rappers as Kabuki villains; divas in kimonos with hoodies.

Several of Brown's fascinating ganguro paintings are showcased, along with other contemporary works and more than 150 classic Japanese prints, in "Edo Pop," an exhibit opening Sunday at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Highlighting the museum's stellar collection of ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") prints, the show is a beguiling hybrid of past and present, hand-made esoterica and modern exotica. It will be on view through Jan. 8.

The dramatic impact of Japanese prints on the work of French Impressionist painters is well known, as is the influence of Japanese cartoons on U.S. television. "Edo Pop" explores a different vein of Japan's long-running cultural exchanges with the West.

It begins with 200-year-old, delicately tinted wood-block prints of kimono-clad beauties writing love letters in tea houses and ends with a 41-foot-long video projection of big-eyed girls beset by vampires in a colorful underwater garden. Along the way visitors encounter glamorous courtesans, mischievous children, Kabuki villains, mythological heroes, iconic waves and famous vistas of Mount Fuji.

Popular pleasures

Japan's Edo period (1615-1868) spawned one of the world's most legendary pleasure quarters, the "floating world" of Edo, the city that evolved into modern Tokyo. It was a time and a place that celebrated many of the same ephemeral diversions we love today -- beautiful women, luxurious fashion, high-octane parties, the theater, sex scandals, travel, dining out, telling ghost stories, admiring maple leaves in autumnal moonlight.

Like the Pop art of the mid-20th century, ukiyo-e prints depicted the popular culture of their time -- and became collectibles among the country's new merchant class.

"These woodblock prints really were created for commoners who, for the first time in history, could collect art," said Matthew Welch, the institute's deputy director and curator of Japanese art, who organized the show.

Compared to the larger collections of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago, the Minneapolis museum has a modest collection of just 2,700 prints. Still, it is considered among the best because it includes rare subjects and the fragile images are of exceptionally high quality, with crisp lines and colors still fresh after 200 years. Most were given to the museum by two Twin Cities collectors, Richard Gale and Louis W. Hill.

Updated traditions

Connoisseurs admire the extraordinary detail that Japanese printmakers achieved by carefully carving, into slabs of cherrywood, the delicate patterns of garments, textures of baskets and tatami mats, froth and foam of waves, and even transparent effects of smoke or clouds.

Kitagawa Utamaro's two-panel 1794-95 print "Kitchen Scene," depicting four women hard at work over a hot stove, their hair disheveled and kimono-sleeves akimbo, is a standout example of an unusual topic. One peels a potato, another shushes a child, a third blows onto the coals and a fourth winces as she dodges a blast of steam. The intimacy, concentration and intensity of their work is fascinating.

In a nearby print, two elegant women giggle at the sight of three children using a gleaming lacquered chest as a mirror in which they grimace, stick out their tongues and scowl like Kabuki actors.

Always a populist art form, Kabuki theater flourished in the Edo era, too, its melodramatic stories of betrayed lovers, revenge and villainy appealing to all classes. Print portraits of famous actors were popular, as were images of flowers, literary scenes and the well-traveled Tokaido road that linked Edo and Kyoto. Several galleries of such prints include stellar versions of Hokusai's famous views of Mt. Fuji in stormy weather and dwarfed by the "Great Wave Off Kanagawa."

Not surprisingly, contemporary artists grow weary of even the most beautiful clichés. In "Edo Pop," these traditional scenes are followed by graffiti images, contemporary screens and light-box scenes that employ traditional motifs as an ironic shorthand for Japanese identity and culture.

In a series of little paintings, the Japanese Pop artist Yoshitomo Nara sends a cartoon babe skiing down Fuji's slope and festoons a typical Hiroshige landscape with "No Nukes" signs. Tokyo painter Akira Yamaguchi comments on Japan's enduring love of "horsepower" by updating a famous 1560 folding screen that features six stallions in an elegant stable. In his version, the modern horses have automobile engines, robotic attendants and perhaps Toyota executives lunching on the veranda.