A photographic introduction to items from the collection

"Shini-e" -- Portraits of the deceased

Shini-e (obituary picture) is a genre of ukiyo-e that depicts actors who have passed away. Even today, I cannot forget the powerful impression of my first encounter with this genre. They are, after all, depictions of deceased actors, and while they are not yurei-ga (prints of monsters, ghosts and goblins), every actor is shown wearing a funeral robe (kimono). Looking at them from a present-day perspective somehow felt bizarre.

Shini-e are nishiki-e that were produced to announce the death of a kabuki actor or other celebrity, as well as to pray for the repose of his soul. A great many shini-e were produced from the mid-Edo period to the end of the Meiji period.

四代目中村歌右衛門死絵 五代目瀬川菊之丞死絵
Shini-e for Nakamura Utaemon IV Shini-e for Segawa Kikunojo V

Today, for instance, when a popular actor dies the photo that is used shows the actor in a well-known scene from his or her career. But in a shini-e the actor wears a funeral robe and the picture includes motifs that symbolize death and the afterlife, such as the bank of the Sanzu River, the Japanese version of the River Styx, lotus flowers and buildings in paradise. Such pictures are clearly shini-e, as they include details such as the date of death, posthumous Buddhist name, temple burial site, and a death poem (jisei). But because shini-e were made for the purpose of informing fans about an actor's death they were produced in a hurry, and often the wrong posthumous name or temple was included, and sometimes even the date of death was wrong. In fact, often any old posthumous name would be applied and the actor clad in a robe befitting a shini-e.

These shini-e are typified by a figure wearing a robe that is light blue in color, or asagi-iro as it was called. This light blue was the color of robes that the dead wore in those days, and it was common for the dead to be clothed in formal robes called kamishimo. In the case of an onnagata actor who played female roles, he would not only be dressed in kamishimo, but also in a black Buddhist robe called kesa.

Shini-e for Ichikawa Danjuro IX
Shini-e for Ichimura Takenojo V Shini-e for Nakamura Utaemon IV

Furthermore, it was common for the figures to be holding Buddhist prayer beads and a sprig of shikimi (Japanese anise). The shikimi, also referred to as koge or hana-no-ki, is a fragrant evergreen whose leaves open in a way not dissimilar to the lotus flower and it was used in funerals and Buddhist ceremonies throughout the year. By giving the departed props that are associated with death, the pictures are emphasizing that they have passed on.

Since nearly all shini-e show figures in these funeral robes they are not very popular in art history. As one commentator has written, "The deluge of cheap works with light-blue funeral robes gave rise to "shini-e" and other terms, and there can be no doubt that this contributed to a lowering of the prestige of shini-e..." (Yoshikazu Hayashi "A Study of Shini-e -- Volume I: The Period of the Emergence of Shini-e and their Development"). However, viewed from the standpoint of folklore studies, this way of representing death is not only able to illustrate images of death and funerals at this time, but also serves as material from which to examine methods of the depiction of the deceased.

If one looks carefully at shini-e, one sees a variety of small objects placed around the perimeter. For example, Buddhist objects are skillfully incorporated in these pictures. These include incense burners, pails of cut shikimi and lotus flowers, short death poems, Buddhist sutras and sutra desks. Due to the influence of the legend of Chuang Tzu's butterfly dream, some shini-e depict butterflies, which serve as symbols of the fleetingness of life.

八代目市川団十郎死絵 五代目市川竹之丞死絵
Shini-e for Ichikawa Danjuro VIII Shini-e for Ichimura Takenojo V
Shini-e for Ichikawa Ebizo V Shini-e for Nakamura Hikaku

Shini-e with figures not wearing funeral robes differ from the usual pictures of actors, as a variety of devices are used to form an association with death. Motifs based on nehan-zu depicting the death of the Buddha Shaka and his entrance into the state of nirvana appear along with a variety of actors. There are nehan-zu that depict disciples and animals grieving over Shaka's death, and similar scenes are found in shini-e where actors, fans and sometimes even animals are shown grieving. The appearance of such motifs in shini-e also tells us that at that time people were familiar with nehan-zu.

It is not uncommon to find shini-e with motifs based on the journey of death. Because they portray the afterlife, in addition to showing actors who have already died receiving and awaiting the arrival of a recently deceased actor, they may also depict hell and paradise, signposts to the Sanzu River, and the banks of the Sanzu River. For example, a shini-e for Nakamura Utaemon IV shows Utaemon, who has arrived in a carriage, being greeted on the banks of the Sanzu River by Ichimura Takenojo V, Onoe Kikugoro III and others. Beside the figures are inscribed the words, "Picture showing the welcoming of the Kanjaku Buddha into paradise", and as these two actors who have come to welcome Utaemon also died within the previous three years there is a sign at the side of the river that reads, "Sanzu River, the road to paradise", which shows that this is the bank of the Sanzu River.

Shini-e for Nakamura Kanjaku II Shini-e for Ichikawa Danjuro VIII
Shini-e for Toyokuni III Shini-e for Segawa Kikunojo V

In the Meiji period, the form of shini-e changed along with the spread of photographs, and gradually ceased to be produced once bromides had become universal. The arrival of photographs saw the incorporation of elements from portrait photographs in shini-e as well, so that they came to possess a realistic aspect. Even so, they still retained the freedom of composition of shini-e. In a shini-e for Nakamura Hikaku I, Hikaku, who is depicted with a realistic facial expression, is shown holding his own memorial tablet which he thrusts to the front of the picture. This composition makes it possible to create a powerful effect and for the deceased to hold his own memorial tablet, something that would have been extraordinary in the Early Modern period.

This way of acknowledging dead actors as being among the deceased relativizes the obviousness of today's approach to acknowledging death, practiced since the modern period, in which photographs taken of the deceased while they were alive are used as obituary photos. Thus, the existence of shini-e is important when examining ways of representing the dead

三代目中村寿三郎 五代目尾上菊五郎死絵
Shini-e for Nakamura Jusaburo III Shini-e for Onoe Kikugoro V

Of course, shini-e are important materials for research into the history of theater as well, as they show how actors were regarded, their surrounding environments and their relationships with plays. They have huge value as materials in this way, but we must also continue to examine this from a wide range of aspects.

Shinya Yamada (Folklore Studies, Research Department)