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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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Shunbaisai Hokuei
(active c. 1828-1836)


Hokuei kanjiHokuei danshichiShunbaisai Hokuei (春梅斎北英) was a master artist of the third period of Osaka printmaking. Many of his prints were technical marvels employing advanced block-cutting and printing techniques. Hokuei used a tension-filled dramatic approach toward much of his actor portraiture, sometimes positioning isolated figures against monochromatic backgrounds to emphasize the actors' expressions and emotional states. He experimented with unusual placements of solitary figures, which when combined with articulated gestures, postures, and facial expressions (mie, or "display"), created an air of mystery, tension, or danger. Hokuei also arranged solitary figures to suggest related action beyond the single sheet, which added a sense of uncertainty and dramatic possibility that compelled the viewer to fill in the missing story.

The image on the right is a deluxe-style print in ôban format depicting Arashi Rikan II as Danshichi Kurobei. It portrays, with chilling effectiveness, one of kabuki's most gruesome and exciting moments, the famous "back-street murder scene" in the play Natsu matsuri Naniwa kagami (Mirror of the Naniwa Summer Festival), first produced for the puppet theater in 7/1745 and in the next month for the kabuki theater. Hokuei's design, issued for a performance at the Chikugo Theater, Osaka, in 5/1832, is signed Shunkôsai Hokuei ga (an earlier form of his artistic name) and bears the marks of the publisher Kawaji and the master block cutter Kasuke.

Danshichi was an otokodate ("standing fellow" or "chivalrous commoner," a defender of commoners) who had been imprisoned for wounding a retainer named Sagaemon. Paroled on the condition that he renounce violence, he was forced to confront his wicked father-in-law, Giheiji who was Hokuei danshichi detail attempting to kidnap a fugitive courtesan named Kotoura and sell her to Sagaemon. Sworn to protect her because she is the lover of a friend, Danshichi offers to buy her freedom, but he cannot produce immediate payment. Giheiji taunts him mercilessly, and although Danshichi does all he can to honor his pledge and control his anger, he finally becomes enraged beyond endurance and struggles with Giheiji, slashing him with his sword. As his father-in-law screams "murderer!", Danshichi finishes him off with a thrust through the villain's heart. Danshichi then escapes by joining in a noisy festival procession.

There is a poem written in metallic pigment against the black night sky composed by the actor Rikan. It uses a conventional image of bamboo bending but not breaking as an intentionally ironic metaphor for the explosive Danshichi whose rage cracked his resolve. It translates as, "The young bamboo / is not burdened / by the heavy rain" (Wakadake ya / me no omotai / kunimo sezu).

The murder scene was a favorite with kabuki audiences who found the movements of the actor especially thrilling as he moved about the stage dressed only in a red loin cloth while exhibiting a vividly tattooed upper torso (actually, a painted costume). Hokuei's print captures Danshichi in his rage as he poses against the sepulchral night. While Giheiji crawls away, Danshichi strikes a remarkable mie with his sword held in his clenched teeth as he crouches above Giheiji's muddy prints (see illustration, top right).

In stalking Giheiji, Danshichi's posture suggests he is confronting a personal darkness. While Danshichi looks past the left edge of the sheet, the viewer must visualize what a pitiable and frightful sight the dying Giheiji must offer. This is a composition stripped down to its essentials, and it is Hokuei's most dramatic use of the isolated figure gesturing beyond the edge of a composition. Rarely has violence been portrayed with such penetrating psychological insight in ukiyo-e prints, and this composition is one of the highlights of dramatic single-figure portraiture in the Osaka school, indeed, in all of ukiyo-e. © 1999-2016 by John Fiorillo

For other prints by Hokuei, see Hayagawari and Surimono/Deluxe.


  • Fiorillo, John: Drama in the Surimono-style Prints of Hokuei, in: Impressions, no. 20, 1998.
  • Keyes, Roger and Mizushima, Keiko: The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973.
  • Halford, Aubrey & Giovanna: The Kabuki Handbook. Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956, pp. 231-240.
  • Matsudaira, Susumu: Kamigata ukiyo-e nihyakunen ten ["Exhibition of 200 Years of Kamigata Ukiyo-e"]. Tokyo: Nihon Keisei Shinbunsha, 1975, plate #171.
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