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Beans, Beans, Beans, Beans

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

Fig 01
Fig. 1

A dozen years — too long — have passed since this page last discussed (in Daruma #12) the diminutive variety of ukiyo-e print known as mameban. A classic example of the Japanese penchant for compactness and portability, this charming format (typically 12 x 8 cm) represented for half a century, beginning in the 1820s, something of a minor specialty of the Osaka publishing world.

Mameban (literally "bean prints") boast one-twelfth the surface of a standard 36 x 24 cm ôban print. Nonetheless, these humblest of woodblock prints have succeeded in expanding the legacy of kamigata-e, thanks to their use in genres left unserviced by Osaka ôban — beauties, warriors, sumô, erotica and so on — and to the virtuoso technical finesse they frequently exhibit.

Mameban are enormously easy to collect. A good bean print costs on the order of a few tens of dollars — as opposed to one or two thousand for an important ôban — and can of course be counted on to make nearly zero demand on one's storage space. Like diamonds, a collection of a thousand wee examples, should the need arise, could travel all the way around the planet in the pocket of a safari vest.

Certain Osaka artist names appear almost exclusively in the Lilliputian world of mameban, and I often fret over how poorly posterity is treating them. Japanese include all mameban, regardless of design originality or printing quality, in the category of "toy prints" (omocha-e), a label that suggests they are unworthy of serious study. In the West, where size doesn't matter so much (in prints), their under-researched state might simply be due to a lack of quantity, and there being no stand-out mameban component in any high-profile collection.

Raising up Sada'ashi

An example of a mameban name that is completely overlooked in ukiyo-e criticism is that of Sada'ashi (n.d.). Though the signature points to a distinguished teacher (think Sadanobu or Sadamasu or perhaps Sadayoshi), and graces numerous fine mameban from the 1840s — mostly warrior and theatrical prints (see Fig. 1) — Sada'ashi exists in no Osaka reference work, and — the true measure of exclusion — can not even be found with Google!

Some consolation for the shabby treatment accorded mameban names is that, given the habit of Japanese artists to use a trunkful of seals and signatures over the course of their career, many of the ignored signatures (forget deciphering the itty-bitty, teensy-weensy seals occasionally detectable on bean prints) could easily be pseudonyms for recognized ôban artists who sought to separate the two bodies of work.

Fig 2
Fig. 2

Additional consolation comes from discoveries like Fig. 2, a potential "bust-out" work by Sada'ashi of the kind that might open the door toward recognition, at least among Osaka print experts. True, the sheet is only 31.0 x 11.5 cm, an obscure variation of the chû-tanzaku format, but the image is large enough to avoid being labelled a toy print, and covers an actual performance at a major (ô-shibai) venue.

Depicted by Sadaashi are Onoe Baikô (aka Kikugorô III ,1784-1849, visiting from Edo) as the spirit Usugumo, and Mimasu Tanin (n.d.) as Oe Inabanosuke. From kabuki archives, we also know that the play was titled Umenoharu 53-tsugi, and that it was mounted in 3/1841 at Osaka's Kado Theater.

The sheet, alas, offers us no publisher mark, and Sadaashi — perhaps paralyzed at the last minute by the immensity of the space he had been given to work with — neglected to embellish his signature with a (nom de plume) or a seal. Thus, we learn nothing new about one of the significant figures in mameban production other than that — and this doesn't amount to a hill of beans — at least once in his career he broke free of the restraints of his Tom Thumb corner of the print world and got a taste of bigger things.

This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 62, Spring 2009. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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