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Paul Binnie (born 1967)


Binnie Jakuemon Paul Binnie (born 1967) is a Scottish artist who studied at Edinburgh University and College of Art from 1985 to 1990. He lived next in Paris until 1993, when he traveled to Tokyo and was introduced to the contemporary woodblock printmaker Kenji Seki, from whom he learned much about the techniques of printmaking.

Binnie, who has an interest in ukiyo-e and shin hanga, has designed Japanese prints of several types, blending traditional methods in a modern-day style. Among these are his portraits of contemporary actors from the kabuki stage in both woodblock prints or stencil prints (kappaban). His 'kappaban' also feature Nô actors and the tattooed yakuza ("gangsters") from Japan's organized crime clans. Not limiting himself to print media, however, Binnie has also painted highly detailed portraits of actors from the Nô theater and kabuki.

Binnie sketches from performances in the kabuki theaters, while sometimes using photographs for costume details. One of the artist's notable strengths is his skill in capturing the "color of kabuki," or more specifically, the chromatic potency of the fabrics and face makeup. His draughtsmanship is equally successful, with a fine control of line and form, which when coupled with the vibrant colors and accurate facial likenesses brings Binnie's actor portraits to life.

Binnie uses 20 or more blocks for some designs, cherry for the keyblock and magnolia for the color blocks. His pigments are those also used for Nihonga ("Japanese-style painting") except for bero-ai ("Berlin blue" or Prussian blue). He prefers torinoko kôzo and nishinouchi washi for his papers. He typically begins printing an edition with about 30-40 prints and then finishes the edition on demand, when he then destroys the blocks.

The print at the top right is a portrait of Nakamura Jakuemon IV (born 1920), one of Japan's officially designated "Living National Treasures" (ningen kokuhô). He received this honor in 1991 after decades of performing as an onnagata, a male actor of woman's roles. Here he stars in the dance Fuji musume ("The Wisteria Maiden"), first performed in 9/1826 at the Nakamura-za, Edo. The dance with nagauta ("long song") narrative musical accompaniment is a section of a hengemono ("transformation piece"), a dance play requiring changes in character and costume for a series of brief dances. Fuji musume does not actually have a plot, but rather presents a maiden (musume) as the spirit of wisteria (fuji).

Binnie's print is a design from a series titled Kabuki okubi-e ("Great Portraits from Kabuki"). The paper sizes in this series (with one exception - see the last print illustrated below) measure slightly more than traditional ôban sheets, approximately 42x30cm, with images around 38x26cm in editions of 100. A large green circular seal at the top right sounds out the artist's name "Binnie" with the characters for bin ("clever") and ni ("two"). A square date seal printed in green at the lower right reads Heisei hachinen ("Eighth year of Heisei," or 1996). Jakuemon is captured in a mie ("display") as Fuji Musume raises over her shoulder a golden fan patterned with the golden rays of Japan's rising sun. The colors and intricate feminine fabric motifs belie the duality of the onnagata ("woman's manner") — the male presence beneath the female likeness (onnarashisha). Jakuemon, performing well into his seventies, still possesses the notable skill to portray convincingly a young maiden on the kabuki stage. Yet if we focus on the face or the folds of the neck, we can discern the male actor and marvel at Jakuemon's startling transformation in the role of Fuji musume (see the Detail of Jakuemon).

Binnie Ennosuke The print on the left depicts the contemporary superstar Ichikawa Ennosuke III (born 1939) in his signature piece called Kurozuka ("The Black Tomb"). The play was first performed in 11/1939 at the Tokyo Gekijô and was derived from a play called Adachigahara ("Adachi Moor"). It tells the tale of a demon, disguised as an elderly woman named Iwate, who secretly feeds upon human flesh. When confronted by a visiting priest she cannot dispel his prayers and flees.

The first star of this play was Ennosuke's grandfather, Ennosuke II (1888-1963), who helped define its modern interpretation, with sophisticated stage lighting, contemporary dance, and psychological realism (including a more sympathetic portrayal of the demon as a being who seeks salvation). The current Ennosuke first performed the role of the demon at age twenty-three, shocking the kabuki establishment with his precocious skill. Today he is perhaps kabuki's biggest star. He is an innovative performer of boundless energy and interests, involved in acting, producing, directing, and rewriting kabuki plays. In 1986 he created the first of his "Super Kabuki," which are high-tech, high-energy reworkings of traditional kabuki themes, characterized by what Ennosuke calls "story, speed, and spectacle." The plays of the Super Kabuki have been great successes, all requiring long preparation and great effort to create and perform.

Binnie's print is from the series Heisei yakusha ôkagami ("Great Mirror of Heisei Period Actors"). The image is 38x26cm on a sheet measuring 42x30cm, published in an edition of 100. The face of the demon, brilliantly made up, is stained with blood, its mouth filled with the sanguine evidence of its horrible deeds. Binnie complements this disquieting sight with an impressively detailed drawing of the demon's wig, which is highlighted with silver mica for some of the finely printed hair (see Detail of Ennosuke; see also the illustrations for the Four Stages of Drawings and Printing, Sixteen Printing Stages), and the Keyblock. The circular red seal at the middle left border reads "Binnie" in a stylized, curved English script, while the accompanying red date seal reads Heisei kyûnen ("Ninth year of Heisei," or 1997).

Binnie Ebizori The print on the right is an impressive large-format print depicting Bandô Tamasaburô V (born 1950) in Seki no to ("The Barrier Gate"), a dance sequence with Tokiwazu musical narrative accompaniment first performed in 10/1784. The portion of 'Jûni-hitoe' in current kabuki repertory was originally titled Tsumoru koi yuki seki no to ("Love and Deep Snow at the Mountain Barrier") as part of the play Jûni hitoe Komachi zakura ("Twelve-layered Robes: Komachi Cherry Tree"). The dance sequence is the only part still performed today. The musical accompaniment is among the most famous in all of kabuki dance repertory.

The main story revolves around the machinations of Sekibei (actually the villain Kuronosuke) who desires to capture military rule over the country and to take revenge upon his rival Munesada. Late in the 'Seki no to' sequence Kuronushi attempts to cut down a cherry tree that seems miraculously to have taken some imperial seals once hidden by Munesada, but he is confronted by the Spirit of the Cherry Tree (actually Sumizome, a courtesan and former lover of Munesada's deceased brother murdered by Kuronushi's retainers). She fights off Kuronushi with only a cherry branch.

The role of Sumizome is played here by Tamasaburô, another of today's superstar actors, of middle age but still a strikingly attractive onnagata. In addition to kabuki, Tamasaburô performs women's roles in Shakespeare, ballets with Western dance companies, leading characters in experimental theater with foreign playwrights and directors, and films such as the widely acclaimed Yasha ga ike ("Demon Pond"). He strives for the reality of "femaleness" in his performances, what he calls a "uniformity of form and feeling," desiring to transcend the limitations of a man playing as a woman. His convincing performances have made him enormously popular among a broad spectrum of audiences.

Binnie's oversize image measures 61x43cm on paper approximately 67x48cm (roughly 26x19in). It is also part of the Kabuki okubi-e series mentioned above, but is the only large format print in the set and in a smaller edition of 50. The sheer size of this print attracts attention, and its effect is enhanced by a lavish use of mica tinted with yellow to simulate a gold-leaf screen. The print is titled Ebizori in Japanese script at the upper right and signed Bin-ni in Japanese script, with the round English "Binnie" seal just below along with the date seal reading Heisei kyûnen ("Ninth year of Heisei," or 1997; see Detail of Tamasaburô). Tamasaburô is performing an ebizori mie ("prawn bend display"; Binnie has also titled it "Backbend" in English). This mie is used in several koroshiba ("killing scenes") in kabuki. Sumizome curls backward like a prawn (ebi) to escape a huge axe wielded by Sekibei. Her long flowing hair complements the ebizori. Binnie has stylishly captured the delicacy and "female likeness" of Tamasaburô, who expresses a fascinating serenity despite the supreme physical danger she is confronting.

For over three centuries kabuki has periodically recast itself to meet a changing world. Modern kabuki still offers traditional interpretations of ageless stories, but it also presents revivals or modernizations to bring the art form to contemporary audiences who are generally less inclined to appreciate the traditional. Artists often respond to such revisionism, and Paul Binnie is a most interesting case — a westerner who created impressive portraits of actors, his methods and materials traditional, his sensibility modern. ©1999-2001 by John Fiorillo

Paul Binnie Website.


  • Clark, T. and Ueda: The Actor's Image: Printmakers of the Katsukawa School. Art Institute of Chicago, 1995, pp. 36-47.
  • Gunji, M.: Kabuki. Tokyo: Kodansha, pp. 78 and 138, plate 22 and 135.
  • Kominz, L.: The Stars Who Created Kabuki: Their Lives, Loves and Legacy. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1997, pp. 224-265.
  • Khun, S.: "Veteran Kabuki Actor Looks Back," in: Japan Times, July 9, 1997.
  • Leiter, S.: Kabuki Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979, pp. 66, 214-214, 255-256, 343-344, and 406.
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