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Tatebanko — Edward Scissorhands

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

Tatebanko fig. 1
Fig. 1


Banner Days for Tatebanko

The color photocopier is changing many aspects of print appreciation. Recently, I attended an important exhibition in Japan of Hiroshige landscape prints in which half of one wall was covered with photocopied reproductions. This was not due to the need to rotate Edo-period prints out of the lights to preserve their hues. No, it was simply a matter of the curators not having secured all the originals they wanted.

It occurred to me that, as insurance costs soar and lender restrictions stiffen, Fuji/Xerox copies may soon become a more common museum staple than old woodblock imagery of Fujiyama.

The color copier has also led to renewed interest in Japan in tatebanko, that is, prints designed to be cut up for making three-dimensional dioramas. This genre, one of several developed to cater to the Japanese love for creative paper craft, seems to have originated in Kansai as early as the 1780s, before spreading to Edo (now Tokyo), where a vogue of sorts continued up to ca. 1920.

Papering the house

The miniature models, designed for display in the home or storefront, originally recreated celebrated scenic spots and classic stage assemblages from the kabuki repertoire.

In time, however, subject matter expanded to encompass historic samurai battles, religious pilgrimage sites, and, most charmingly, vignettes from daily life and the streets: market stalls, the public baths, train stations, etc. Very occasionally, instead of a panorama, only a single large object, like an Obon festival lantern, was the challenge for the hobbyist.

Due to the fact that tatebanko, more than any other kind of omocha-e (toy print), were clearly designed and purchased to be sacrificed, precious few sheets have survived intact. (As you can imagine, the completed dioramas have fared even worse.) As a result, even a profligate collector is loth to further damage the woodblock legacy and fabricate a 3-D model out of a print ... and yet one can't help but want to see the end result of the designers’ingenuity.

Enter the color copier clerk from Kinko's. Needless to say, 2007 vintage paper won't feel good to the hands of an ukiyo-e buff, and saturated wood-block pigments continue to defy definition by pixels. However, going through the cutting and pasting process, or merely standing back and enjoying the finished construction, gives us some idea of what appealed to the general public of the Edo and Meiji periods.

In fact, a copier allows you to go one step further than the 19th-century Edward Scissorhands, assuming you have the floor space of the second museum I visited this month. To really grab visitors’ attention there, the curator digitally enlarged each element on the tatebanko sheet so that the finished diorama was more like an "installation," large enough for a small child to crawl through.

Wrestling with glue and scissors

Some tatebanko were incredibly elaborate, requiring over a dozen ôban sheets full of human figures and props and background scenery. On the other hand, they could also be very simple. Fig. 1, a circa 1868 tatebanko by the Osaka artist Konobu I (later Sadanobu II, 1848-1940), shows how a single hosoban sheet can provide all that is needed, assuming the scene is as elemental as a sumô ring.

The specific moment captured is the formal ring entering ceremony (do-hyo-iri), where the top-ranked wrestlers get to show off their fancy aprons. Konobu provides the print buyer with eight well-known "lords of the ring" (written on the aprons), a judge (the yellow paper moons are for support), plus all the necessary paraphernalia and architectural elements.

Not included on the sheet is an image of how it all should look when completed — a feature tucked in the corner of most tatebanko, like the buckets are here — probably because the publishing team assumed any hobbyist who chose this print was familiar with the sumô ring's layout. Instead, wedged in among the diorama elements are little "how-to" tips, forerunners to the challenging prose found in Japanese instruction manuals to this day.

This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 55, Summer 2007. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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