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Room With a View

Something a bit more colourful this time! Our print this month was designed in 1867 by Shibata Zeshin, and formed the frontispiece to the book Kumanaki-kage, which was a volume privately published by the Koga-ren group of kyoka poets in dedication to Kagetsu, the man who founded their group, on the occasion of the third anniversary of his death. What we are looking at in this print is, I assume, the second-floor room of one such poet (a rich man, obviously), with some of his books scattered on the tatami mats, and with the windows flung wide open to allow enjoyment of the sea view. A small pot for burning o-ko (fragrant incense) sits on a small table, and up on a high shelf resting on a sheaf of paper is a lacquered box containing his inkstone and writing brush, ready for the creation of more poems ... The scroll hanging in the tokonoma is a silhouette of Kagetsu himself, and is by Baigake Komei.

It is very interesting to think about the contrast between the wonderfully peaceful scene we see here, and the reality that must have surrounded it back in 1867 ... the year that the Edo government collapsed and the Meiji Emperor took power.

Although the men who printed the original version of this print nearly 150 years ago wouldn't have thought it was so difficult to make, my viewpoint is somewhat different! This is one of the most challenging prints I have ever made. In many ukiyo-e prints, the lines that delineate each colour area are in most cases around a millimetre or so in thickness, and this allows some leeway in registration when printing, as the colours overlap into those heavy black lines. In this print though, many of the carved 'boundary' lines are as thin as a hair (the original consists of a double-page spread in the e-hon size, but I have reduced it to half-size, in order to fit in this album). This means that when printing, the registration must quite simply be perfect; there is no leeway at all - nowhere to 'hide'. And it must be perfect for every one of the printing impressions, 19 in all on this print ...

Making 200+ copies of a print with 19 impressions takes quite some time of course, and with the weather as hot and muggy as it has been this September, stopping the paper from becoming moldy is quite a challenge. I have written before about how I keep the paper on a shelf in my refrigerator those times when I am not actually working on it, and indeed this print has spent every night of the past couple of weeks in the fridge. But this month I had to take that process a step farther. Just a couple of days after the printing had started, a sudden chance came up to take a hiking trip to Mt. Hodaka. The weather was perfect, there was space available in a lodge up on the mountain, the hiking season would be over soon ... it was perhaps the last chance I would have for a long time. I very much wanted to go ... but the printing was already under way; even the refrigerator wouldn't stop the paper from becoming moldy over an extended period of time. The solution? I stacked the washi between sheets of damp newspaper, wrapped it all carefully in strong plastic bags, and put it in the freezer! I then headed for the mountains, and had a most enjoyable time up in the Alps.

When I got back late one evening a few days later, the first thing to do, even before unpacking my pack or looking in my mailbox, was to pull the package out of the freezer. It was a solid icy block, just like a stone. I set it aside to defrost slowly during the night, and then in the morning when it was time to work, I carefully unwrapped it to see what the paper condition was like. It was perfect - absolutely perfect. The paper was moist and soft, just right for printing. I got busy right away, my baren pressing the colours into the soft and pliant paper, and after another week or so of work, it was done.

When you look at this print now, I doubt very much that it will seem 'cold' to you, but I find it interesting to think back and remember the paper all wrapped up in the freezer - patiently waiting while I tramped up and down the mountains. I am quite sure that such an opportunity never came to the printers in the old days!

September 1999


Copies of this print are available from the Mokuhankan print shop.