Another marvellous delivery of Japanese prints hit my door mat a bit early this month, which allowed me to take the opportunity to photograph them quickly. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!
Here are a few prints from a 6-print series of various actors in the play “Otokodate Mutsu no Hatsuyuki” (男達六初雪), staged at the Ichimura-za & Nakamura-za theatres from the 19th of the 10th month 1870. I have the whole series but this was just a few duplicates I bought for comparison. I really like the red & green faded background and the bold designs of their kimonos set against the background of what I suspect is pages of script from the play. Just in these pages you can begin to see how the colours varied.
Here is another print of one of my favourite Meiji plays, “Okige no kumo harau Asagochi”. I won’t say more but see my article here for more about it. There is a bit of colour bleed from the purple Rosaniline? dye used but otherwise it’s in good shape. Rosaniline is a bit notorious for running because it is so very water soluble.
The next print isn’t in such great condition but I just had to have it because the apple-green background is so unusual. After a brief search I also located another version of the same design with the same actors & characters but a blue background instead, which raises some interesting questions. Are they for the same production and which came first? It was a common practice to reprint a run of popular prints and often they would play around with different backgrounds – usually simpler ones on the reprint, to cut costs. But in this case it’s hard to say which might have been the original one. The blue seems to have a little more attention to detail, with an extra bokashi fade on Tadanobu’s kimono. But the blue background is quite boring and doesn’t seem to have added much to the design.
Anyway, the play is an easy one to identify – “Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura”, with Kitsune (Fox) Tadanobu on the left, Shizuka Gozen (Yoshitsune’s mistress) in the middle with a shoulder drum, and Minamoto no Yoshitsune himself on the right. As you can see, I have many similar ones but they usually share a similar composition.
This next print just intrigued me because I also collect a few banzuke, the play bills that advertised upcoming productions. Banzuke were also produced for sumo competitions and in this the artist has depicted an imagined face-off between the lead actors from 2 of the main theatres in Edo for the reputation of their theatre. The print is in quite poor condition, with ink blots on it and lots of dirt/rubbing marks but it is the only one I have ever seen of this design so I felt it was worth having.
This is a kabuki banzuke, showing a typical Meiji design and layout, with the cast’s names above and then pictures of the characters they will be playing that month. The text is usually written so tightly packed that it is nearly impossible for us to read but it must have been fine for people back then who were used to this style.
The next image struck me as possibly another from the play “Satsuki bare Ueno no Asakaze”, which I have written about before. I must have a good eye (the actor with the red headdress and black uniform gave it away) because it was indeed from the same production.
One of my favourite subgenres is prints featuring insects so these butterfly dancers jumped out at me.
The following print is about the legend of Sakura Sōgo, a village elder who went to petition the shogun directly, in the hope that he might reduce their taxes. Sadly though his petition fell on deaf ears and he was executed instead! I particularly liked the snow scene outside and the subtle use of the orange bokashi on the background.
The next print was just really striking from a design point of view, with the red lion’s mane helmet of the main character and the tassels hanging from above.
This next image has a few stains but I just adored the wood grain effect on the background – a particularly satisfying and complex technique to get right. Normal cherry-wood printing blocks were planed as smooth as possible to get an even application of ink but if the artist wanted the wood grain to show through (usually in the background) they would instruct the carvers accordingly. The carver would then choose a piece of wood with prominent graining and use stiff wire brushes to accentuate it, allowing the subtle undulations on the surface to affect the distribution of ink.
And here are the others in the batch – some lovely prints amongst them.