Silhouette portraits came into fashion in late-nineteenth-century Japan following their popularity in Europe and the United States. They were a form of party entertainment. Partygoers would take turns sitting behind a paper sliding door (shōji) while an entertainer captured their backlit silhouettes. A simple leisure activity soon gave way to more complex publications and commemorations. Clear Shadows (Kumanaki kage, 1867), for instance, is a compilation of silhouette portraits depicting members of the kyōga-awase club by the artist Ochiai Yoshiiku (1833–1904), which includes short biographies, picture riddles, and poems. Kyōga-awase (picture-matching for amusement) was played somewhat like Pictionary, where each person was given a subject to illustrate — and could draw anything but the subject itself. Points were awarded on the basis of cleverness.
As scholar Satō Satoru details, Clear Shadows was created to honor Hagetsutei Kasetsu, a young patron of the kyōga-awase club, who died three years earlier. The book features sixty-seven individuals, of which fifty-seven are men and ten are women, including seven young members who are aged ten to sixteen. The silhouettes are far from static: these figures prune flora, draw with a brush, wave fans, finger the beads of a Buddhist rosary, read, smoke, and drink. A cat steals the limelight in one image and shadow puppets enliven others.
This picture-matching club was formed in Edo (present-day Tokyo) and its members included ukiyo-e artists, popular authors, book publishers, and playwrights. Clear Shadows demonstrates that women and children were part of this social network of cultural activities in nineteenth-century Japan. The page spread below, for example, shows a female figure with the pseudonym “Satoyuki”’ on the right and a young man with the nom de plume “Doryū” on the left. According to their short biographies, Satoyuki is a daughter of a Jōruri chanter, a type of sung narrative with shamisen (the banjo-like, three-stringed instrument) accompaniment. As a young girl, she performed with her father and her precocious talent moved the audience to tears. Now she is reputed to have outstripped her teacher. Doryū is presented as a multi-talented person who is good at drawing and composing prose and verse — in particular, haikai (haiku) — as well as impersonating popular kabuki actors.
The images at the top right of each portrait are the club members’ respective riddle submissions. For this commemorative occasion, each participant was given a theme related to the meaning of one of the kanji characters in Kasetsu’s name (“wave”, “moon”, “flower”, or “snow”), which was then combined with one of the five elements (“wood”, “fire”, “earth”, “metal”, or “water”). It is not easy to interpret the images, but Satoyuki’s theme was “flower and metal” and Doryū’s “moon and wave [water]”. Others are even more cryptic: a woman soaking pieces of paper with writings on them in a washbasin is “wave and water”, a man nodding to sleep is “flower and metal”, as is a woman brandishing a sword with her foot raised.
Silhouette likenesses were particularly favored for memorial uses in nineteenth-century Japan. In the frontispiece of Clear Shadows, by the artist Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891), the deceased Kasetsu’s silhouette portrait is shown in a display alcove (tokonoma) with an incense burner and lotus flowers, suggesting a space to honor the departed. We also know that the image of a girl pseudonymized as Sekka (Tatsu) was later used for commemorative purposes, after she died two years on from the book’s publication. Her silhouette portrait is included in the memorial surimono album Mirror of Many Years (Ikuyo kagami, 1869), for example, and also painted inside the lid of the storage box for Journey around Hell and Paradise (Jigoku gokuraku meguri zu, 1869–1870, 1872), an important and moving album of paintings by Kawanabe Kyōsai. A further example of memorial silhouettes can be found in the poetry compilation entitled Moonlight (Katsura kage, 1872), which has twenty-eight silhouette portraits of people who attended a service for the memorial of a deceased child of Tsutagashi Bunkyō, a wealthy merchant in Osaka.
Clear Shadows was compiled by Kasetsu’s brother Kōkōsha Baigai, who was also a member of the kyōga-awase group — possibly with the support of their father, Tsuji Den’emon, an official at the shogunal silver mint (ginza). The volume was first issued as a private publication, but subsequently printed commercially by Hirookaya Kōsuke, a publisher who also appears in the book as “Usen” and who must have seen its wider appeal and economic potential.
The same year that Clear Shadows was published, Ochiai Yoshiiku produced another series of thirty-eight woodblock colour prints that preceded this memorial book, each featuring a silhouette profile image of a kabuki actor. The text included on one of the prints in the group offers a hint as to why silhouettes became a technology for memorializing the dead: “they indeed give the impression as though one is in the presence of these people.” The faddishness of silhouettes in Japan at this time reflected an increasing interest in verisimilitude, as was also found in contemporary Western media of visual representation such as oil painting, lithography, and photography. In the postscript of Clear Shadows, the popular writer Kanagaki Robun (1829–1894) observed: “Appearance is a deceptive skin. Silhouette shows the real bones [core structure of the person].” Silhouette images of this kind were entrusted to family members as truthful portraits and vivid reminders of their departed loved ones.
Jan 23, 2024