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Prints of the Long Goodbye

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

Japanese do not take any sayonara lightly, not even the "off-to-work, see-you-tonight" variety. There is always at least a vague sense of separation unease — perhaps born of so much social (and seismic) instability in their history. This they try to mask, famously, with ritualistic words and gestures: a series of bows, a flurry of formulaic utterances, looks of concern and determination, and, at least with women, an odd little wiggle-waggle benediction with the hand.

When the time arrives to acknowledge the ultimate in leave-takings, the sequence of proper actions surrounding the event, long to begin with, increases with the importance of the deceased. The significance of this for print collectors is that, in the kabuki world of old, one of the many formal shows of respect by which a star was mourned was the publication of shini-e, or memorial prints.

Such ukiyo-e, for some reason far more numerous in Edo than in Osaka, generally depicted the celebrity kneeling with a rosary in his hand, or surrounded by lotus petals, or perhaps approaching the gate to the Western paradise, or all the above.

Occasionally, the artist dispensed with such funereal symbols and simply showed the actor in the costume and pose of a popular role, adding along the top of the sheet the date of death, the deceased's Buddhist name, the location of the grave, and an all-important eulogizing haiku or two.

Fig. 1, by the Osaka artist Sadanobu I (1809-79) is a combination of both these concepts, the fluttering pink lotus blossoms turning a theatrical image from the man's "final earthly performance" into a touching send-off to his next stage. This 6/1837 shini-e, in fact, announces the death of Arashi Rikan II (b. 1788), a hugely-beloved superstar whose departure ushered in a decline in the late 1830s of both Osaka printmaking and Osaka kabuki. Of special note to poetry buffs is the unusual 27-line endless haiku on the upper left.

Shows of respect for the dead can continue in Japan for decades. The rituals are performed at the home altar, graveside, in temples, and yes, also inside a kabuki theater. There are ukiyo-e devoted to this last sort of activity, too, but they are no longer called shini-e. The correct term is tsuizen-e ("memorial-service prints").

Fig. 2 is a 9/1824 tsuizen-e depicting Ichikawa Danzo V (1788-1845) on the stage of the Kado Theater commemorating the 17th anniversary of the passing of his celebrated forebear Danzo IV (1745-1808). The 17th anniversary (actually falling in the 16th year, due to the way Japanese count such things) is an important milestone in ancestor worship. Beyond that date the deceased's generation is understood to seriously drop off in numbers; so does interest, one can assume, even within a family.

Danzo IV (known as Shiko) had the final curtain drawn on him before single sheet Osaka printmaking had reached its flowering.* Perhaps this is one reason why Umetatsu (n.d.), an otherwise unrecorded artist, inserted him so strongly, peering down in ferocious mie from inside the triple black frame — actually the mimasu crest of the Ichikawa acting family.

Also of interest is the jaw line of the kneeling Danzo V. Thanks to regional differences in actor portraiture, the same thespian's face was usually drawn thin and angular in Edo and soft and pudgy in Osaka.

In this case, though the print lists an Osaka publisher, Danzo V's visage (pointedly sans make-up) betrays the narrower Edo look.

One possible reason may lie in the first part of Umetatsu's signature — "Azumaya," or "Easterner." If the artist was visiting from Edo, (where he presumably would have used a different name, and where, incidentally, both Danzos were hugely celebrated), that could explain both the obscurity of the signature, and the actor's severe jaw line.

It might also explain the rarity of this print. True, Danzo V was not performing in Osaka at the time, but one would still expect a special Ichikawa lineage tribute image like this to sell well. Perhaps Osakans reacted particularly negatively to the cut of his jaw.

* Don't miss, however, a wonderful erotic stencil print of him (and his prodigious member) featured in a British Museum show opening at the end of June 2005.

Sadanobu rikan II
Fig. 1


Danzo V
Fig. 2


This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 46, Spring 2005. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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