Although the vast majority of shini-e (死絵) or "death prints" commemorated the demise of actors, a few prints memorialized the deaths of artists, musicians, and sumo wrestlers. The earlier term for these portraits was tsuizen no nishiki-e ("memorial brocade prints"), but "shini-e" does appear at least by the 1850s. The earliest datable single-sheet shini-e were probably issued in the late 1790s, although ehon ("picture books") commemorating the deaths of celebrated actors appeared in the 1770s. Conventional shini-e often depicted the memorialized figures in light blue court robes called shini sôzoku ("death dresses": 死装束) or ceremonial robes (called mizu kamishimo, 水裃). Most shini-e included vital statistics such as the date of death, age, posthumous Buddhist name (kaimyô 戒名), and temple burial sites, and some included the death poems of the deceased.
The most remarkable production of shini-e occurred with the shocking suicide on August 6, 1854 of Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII (八代目 市川團十郎 1823-1854) at a roadside inn during a tour of kabuki performances in Nagoya and Osaka with his father (Danjûrô VII, 七代目 市川團十郎 later Ichikawa Ebizô V, 五台目 市川海老蔵). The young Danjûrô was found in his room at a roadside inn with his wrists slashed. Some scholars surmise that he had accumulated extensive debts as a result of the extravagant lifestyles that both he and his father enjoyed, which weighed heavily upon him. Moreover, his early successes and popularity attracted the envy of older actors, worsening his relationships with them and complicating his personal problems.
Danjûrô VII's popularity was enormous, perhaps the greatest in kabuki history. He is said to have been extremely handsome. Obsessive fans would gladly spend hefty sums for the water taken from barrels in which he immersed himself while performing the role of Sukeroku (助六). Pastry shops offered quick-selling bean-paste buns with cracked outer skins said to replicate the burns of Danjûrô VIII's scar-faced character Yosaburô in Yowa nasake ukina no yokugushi (Sympathetic chatter and the scandalous hair comb, 与話情浮名横櫛). It has been estimated that perhaps as many as 200 shini-e were published upon his death, an extraordinary number.
Sadanobu's memorial print provides information related to the death of Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII. His age at death is given as 32, and his posthumous Buddhist name is Enhaku-in Miyôsei Nichida Shinji (猿白院成清日田信士).
The farewell poem (jisei, 辞世 or 辭世) reads:
Leaving behind Naniwa,
Journeying through the sky.
[signed "The eighth generation"]
Our impression is the earliest state. There is a later version showing some block wear in the face that adds furigana (phonetic glosses, 振仮名) beside the actor's Buddhist name. A prefix reading "Naniwa (浪花 the old name for Osaka) was added to Sadanobu's gô or alternate name (Sakkaen (雪花園). (There would have been no need to use the prefix "Naniwa" in Kamigata, as collectors already knew that Sadanobu worked in Osaka.) There are also slight differences in the forms in all the text, indicating a recarved state. All this suggests that our print was one intended for sale in Osaka, whereas the later impression was meant to be issued in Edo.
References: Ritsumeikan arcUP4229 (later impression); NKE, p. 186