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Ireki: A Chip Off the Old Block

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

In March 1825, the anticipated retirement of Nakamura Utaemon III (1778-1838), a god of the Osaka kabuki stage, was celebrated by the launching of a set of plays designed to show off his ferocious talents. One was an aragoto (lit., "rough stuff") classic about the tragic warrior Kumagai. (See the featured print in Daruma 39, with Utaemon IV in the role.)

Over a dozen prints by different artists and publishers commemorated the epochal event, including several with novel formats, but one (fig. 1) must have struck fans as a little odd.

Yes, the face printed on the sheet was unmistakably that of Utaemon, and the cross-eyed samurai holding a signboard could be none other than Kumagai. Moreover, the calligraphy on the upper right announced "farewell performance," while that just to the left of the head reminded the public that it was "A once in a lifetime event!"

Yet, the overall design of the print was old-fashioned, the signature was that of Ashifune (active 1813-16), an obscure artist who had not been heard from for close to a decade, and the black outlines were full of breaks, a sign of a much-rubbed keyblock.

Sure enough, what the 1825 fans had in their hands was an example of an ireki, a print that had been concocted by manipulating a used keyblock. Distinct from prints termed "later edition" or "color variant" (where the original keyblock remains intact), with ireki (lit., "inserted wood") the keyblock has been somehow altered by words being chiseled off, and/or a substitute plug of wood tamped in.

In some cases the ireki technique was a practical necessity — due, for example, to the illness or sudden death of a star, or an actor's name-change — late in the printmaking process.

Cost-saving by ireki

Much more often, though, ireki seem to have simply resulted from convenience and cost-saving zeal. Since props and poses associated with famous kabuki scenes rarely change, the opportunity arose from time to time, when an appropriate old block fell into the right frugal hands, to recycle.

Selling prints produced in this manner was apparently not so hard, thanks to the low standard for verisimilitude demanded in costume details, and a reluctance to depict facial aging.

The trickiest job involved matching the head of a new actor with a pre-existing body outline, and such delicate transplant surgery was rare. Considerably easier was adding or subtracting words, which often fell in the empty space along the edges of a design.

Because it already featured Utaemon, the keyblock used to print fig. 1 needed only this type of revamping. To the original (fig. 2) were added the farewell expressions, and in the lower left corner the name of the publishers (Yamamoto and Kurashi) were changed to Honsei and Izumi.

In this case, the color blocks — generally re-carved for ireki prints because they take up so much space to mothball and are relatively easier to re-create — also seem to be mostly original.

Given this, it may come as a surprise to learn that fig. 2 was designed for a performance a complete cycle of the zodiac earlier, in 3/1813. A dozen years may seem a long time for a stack of woodblocks to remain on standby duty on somebody's shelf, but we know of other instances where blocks were pressed into service as long as 25 years after first use!

Interestingly, Honsei, a major publishing firm, did not limit its production for the grand occasion to this shared, second-hand retread; they also made a fully contemporary-looking deluxe diptych of the same signboard-wielding scene, designed by the top artist of the day.

This suggests the fig. 1 ireki was merely an opportunistic stop-gap, rushed onto the market to exploit the first wave of excitement over Utaemon's retirement.

However, it is very possible that Osaka fans, with their strong sense of nostalgia and continuity, did not merely tolerate but were genuinely delighted by the reappearance of the Ashifune design. Through it, they could look back fondly at the Bunka era (1804-18), a cultural high water mark, and reminisce about the legendary stage exploits of Utaemon in his prime.

Milking the public

By the way, Utaemon III did not, after all the hoopla, abandon Osaka theatregoers in 1825. A master showman, he milked the "impending farewell" concept ... to death. It was a full 11 years later that he finally got around to passing on just his illustrious name, after which he continued to act until his actual, honest-to-god sayonara, to both stage and life, in mid- 1838.

For much more on ireki, a distinctly Osaka tradition, see Hendrick Luhl's pathfinding article in Andon 72/73:


This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 53, Summer 2004. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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ireki fig 1
Fig. 1

Fig. 2