Ukiyo-e Prints


Port Townsend, Washington





Actor: Asao Onimaru



Role: Shibukawa Tōma



Date: Ca. 1816

Publisher: Tenki





I want to thank AK our frequent correspondent and contributor for providing the information identifying the names of the actor and the role. In this case I had the nerve to ask him for his assistance. I could have done it myself, but it would have taken me what seems like an eternity as compared to his incredible alacrity. Of course, I probably should have suffered through it, but I not only hate suffering but I am also a tad lazy. Thank goodness for AK. AK you're the man!



 Shibukawa Tōma was originally a role in a puppet play, Shin Usuyuki monogatari (新薄雪物語). It was based on a novel from 1632 called The Tale of Usuyuki. Versions of this theme first appeared on the kabuki stage in 1685. This is surely from a later adaptation. Tōma is the servant of the villain Daizen who orders him to spy on Usuyuki and the man she loves. Tōma then has a fight with his rival for the attention of one of Usuyuki's ladies-in-waiting. Right before the play ends Tōma gets into another fight with a different set of characters and is slain. And good riddance!









Elsewhere I have talked about the messages to be found on some of the umbrellas in prints. Perhaps the most famous is the 'Driving Rain at Shōno' by Hiroshige. However it wasn't until I took a look at this print again that I realized that the kanji on the image shown above did most of the leg work for me. (I have posted the image in the negative so that it is that much more dramatic and readable.)


The umbrella on our left has the name of the publisher, Tenki:


The one in the center gives the artist's signature, Kunihira ga:


The umbrella on the right gives us both the actor's name, Asao Onimaru,

 and the role, Shibukawa Tōma:







Years ago when I first started studying European art seriously I noticed certain aspects which I was having trouble reconciling. Could an art work be good if an artist was a lousy draftsman? (Now I know it can.) Can a draftsman be remarkable and still produce a rotten work of art? (Of course! But naturally this is all subjective. What isn't?)


Jean Dominique Ingres, unquestionably the finest portraitist of his day - even if the eyes of his sitters were all somewhat almond shaped - was previewing one of the annual salons. One whole room, as I recall, was devoted solely to this master. While wandering through the cavernous chambers Ingres entered the room with the Delacroixs. Ingres always wore a cape so on this occasion he swept one side of it up covering his eyes dramatically and reaching out with the other arm saying to his companion - whoever that was - something like this: "Lead me from this place. This is not art!" For years I understood what Ingres was saying although I must admit that I did have a sort of naughty appreciation for Delacroix.


Ingres himself had been railed against by at least one critic when he unveiled one of his finest masterpieces "The Grand Odalisque". Too many vertebrae! One too many. Or, was it too few? Don't remember, but that is not the point. The point is summed up in Ingres' response: "If I had had to learn anatomy I never would have become an artist." Naturally this is more of a rationale than an answer. Surely he would have become an artist anyway although he did play a wicked violin. But I digress. Ingres' criticism of Delacroix did not seem completely unfounded. There was something awkward about some of Delacroix's figures. That is....that is...that is...until I ran across a small volume of photos of some of his models. One fellow in particular seemed overly muscular, a bit stunted - leg-wise - and with a rather oddly shaped head. And then I saw the photograph juxtaposed with drawing. Oooops! It was the model and not the artist. Also, I must admit now that looking more closely at his legs they don't seem stunted at all. Good thing I am not giving a crime report.

It is one thing that Cezanne and Matisse showed little propensity for academic drawing, but Delacoix? The photo showed that I was wrong. Perhaps Ingres was attacking the riot of color and the loose brush work. He didn't specify as far as I know.


That brings me around to the matter of the print featured on this page. Kunihira is not a household name. Not even close. The work is stiff and awkward. The face of the figure is poorly drawn - or so I thought until earlier this week.


One visitor to our site who lives in a major European capital - let's call this person "C" - wrote me about this print. "I've seen that face before!" And sure 'nuf C had seen it and proved it too me. Either that or every other artist who drew a likeness of Asao Onimaru was equally bad. Not likely. The only conclusion that could be drawn is that Onimaru had a face only his mother could love. C added: "I also find that the actor portrayed has such a striking visage that he cannot be mistaken as other actors of his time. On page 61 of Schwab, you'll see plate 11 - actor Asao Kuzaemon as Shiga Danshichi, by an artist signing as 'Roko' - no other print by him is known. It is dated 1813. This is the same striking face and expression. [The difference between Kuzaemon and Onimaru can be explained, but I don't how just yet.] Then you can find the same actor in Hendrick Lühl's little yellow book, Osaka-Holzschnitte, on page 45, dated 1821, by Yoshikuni." Thanks C for bringing this to our attention.

This image is being shown courtesy of Kabuki21,

the finest English web site of its kind on the Internet.


Actually I should not be so surprised by this turn of events. The 20th century has been filled with numerous examples of prominent actors who had distinctive, if not craggy, features: Charles Laughton, Charles Bronson, Anthony Quinn and Humphrey Bogart just to name a few. But at least in their cases we have photographs and films which hardly lie.






Not only is Kunihira a rare, rare artist, but so unusual that I don't recall ever seeing any other prints by him --- if this person is a him. Laurance P. Roberts in his A Dictionary of Japanese Artists: Paintings, Sculptures, Ceramics, Prints, Lacquer (1976 edition) with its nearly 3,000 entries doesn't even mention this artist. However, Roger Keyes and Keiko Mizushima in their The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973, p. 268) note that Kunihira was active in ca. 1816 and record only one print which not only gives that date, but also notes that he was a pupil of Kunihiro. Odd. That is the same year that Keyes and Mizushima say Kunihiro started his career. This is the only reference I can find so far --- and there are no illustrations.


I also own a twelve volume encyclopedia devoted to ukiyo-e. It is written entirely in Japanese. One volume is dedicated to providing information about a multitude of individual artists. There is no entry for Kunihira.


But the rarity issue doesn't seem to stop there. This is also the only case I can find where an actor named Asao Onimaru is shown performing. I haven't the slightest who he is. As best I can tell Leiter in his New Kabuki Encyclopedia (1997 edition) has no reference to him. Nor is there one at that great Internet site Kabuki21.com. Our correspondent AK assures me that there is one other reference to  the role of Shibukawa Tōma, but only one. Both AK and I tried searches using the kanji too, but came up with nothing.


So...what I think we have here is an almost totally unique artist with a nearly unique copy of a print showing an unknown actor in an almost totally obscure role. (Leiter doesn't mention this role either.)


If anyone out there knows of any other examples of prints by Kunihira or has access to another image I would appreciate it if they would contact me. If they own the print and would permit me to reproduce it on this page that would be doubly nice. Please contact me. Thanks!