Shini-e (death prints) (死絵)

The Shini-e is a Japanese woodcut print Ukiyo-e, (lit. Pictures of the floating world) produced and published for the commemoration of a famous actor or a writer when he passed away. The picture also described his lifetime achievements, a death poem, and his Dharma name.

Shini-e is a type of Shibai Nishiki-e (a colored woodcut print describing a theatrical plays and actors).

The oldest Shini-e is said to be the one published for the sixth Danjuro ICHIKAWA who died on June 16, 1799 at the age of 22, or the one for the fourth Denkuro NAKAMURA who died on September 27, 1799 at the age of 26.

It seems that this custom began around the time of these two examples and soon became popular, while it lasted until the time around the death of Sadanji ICHIKAWA in 1901; those prints were displayed and sold everywhere in book/print stores.

There were more than 200 different kinds of Shini-e produced for the case of the eighth Danjuro ICHIKAWA, when he committed suicide in Osaka.

Shini-e was mostly published in Onishiki format (a large-sized, multi-colored print) on a Ichimai-mono, (a print printed on a single paper rather than using multiple papers attached to produce a large-sized paper) while earlier Shini-e sometimes used Hoso-e (a small woodprint) or Kan-Nishiki (a medium-sized Nishiki-e) formats.

The picture generally represents the figure holding the objects for the Buddhist service of the dead, such as Shikimi (Japanese star anise) or Juzu (prayer beads), or it depicts the figure in his successful role, while the print is often accentuated by writing his Dharma name, age of death, his death poem, or his memorial words on it.

Throughout the end of Edo period to the early Meiji period, numerous number of Shini-e were produced, while its style and format often changed throughout its history. Sometimes Shini-e took a form of a joke or a cartoon; for example, a picture shows the figure sitting on a lotus pedestal, playing a role as a statue of Buddha. The competition for selling those prints were inevitable among resellers; since they tried to publish them as fast as possible to beat the competitors, the contents of the pictures (ex. Dharma name, age of death, the date of his death) were not well researched, and the information written on the pictures were often inaccurate or irresponsible.

It is common that there is no name of the author written on the Shini-e for those prints produced during the time when Shini-e were overproduced for its popularity,

There were some cases that two actors were put together in one Shini-e, for those who played the role of a couple in a theatrical stage, and died one after another in real life.

The first example of such case is the Shini-e for the fourth Sojuro SAWAMURA and the fourth Roko SEGAWA who both died in 1812.

Since a female impersonator was represented as a female figure in Shini-e, it is difficult to distinguish the husband between the fourth Kikugoro ONOE (a female impersonator) and his wife put together in the picture.

It is a rare case to put a real-life husband and wife together in a Shini-e, compared to the case of a set-up husband and wife for a stage act.

Shibai Nishiki-e became out of fashion when new formats are invented and mass-produced in the form of pictured postcards or photographs of the actors.

[Original Japanese]