spacer 12
VJP title
Utamaro print showing


spacer 16

Shini-e ("Death Prints")


Shini-e kanji Tamashichi Unsigned 1 Prints commemorating the death of an actor, artist, or musician were called shini-e ("death prints": 死絵), a term used at least by the 1850s. An earlier term for memorial portraits was tsuizen no nishiki-e ("memorial brocade prints"). The first datable single-sheet shini-e were probably issued in the 1790s, although ehon ("picture books") commemorating the deaths of celebrated actors appeared as early as 1709, and more regularly by the 1770s.

The vast majority of shini-e depicted actors. Conventional shini-e portrayed memorialized figures in light blue court robes called shini sôzoku ("death dresses") or ceremonial attire called mizu kamishimo (often associated with ritual suicide, called seppuku). Many shini-e included the dates of death, age, posthumous Buddhist name (kaimyô), and temple burial site, while some had death poems (jisei) by the deceased or memorial poems written by family, friends, colleagues, or fans. (Examples exist in which different prints for the same actor have alternate jisei, so it may be that not all were actually composed by the deceased.)

It is also interesting to note that actors could be awarded relatively high death rankings by Buddhist temples, despite their non-person (hinin) status. Most likely, temples made concessions in this regard in exchange for monetary donations from family and fans of the actors.

The most remarkable production of shini-e occurred in response to the shocking suicide of Ichikawa Danjûrô VIII (1823 - 1854) in Osaka on August 8, 1854. As many as 200 shini-e were produced in reaction to the widespread grief over his death. Another factor accounting for this extraordinary number was the death of Danjûrô's celebrated stage companion, Bandô Shuka I (posthumously Mitsugorô V; 1812-55), who died a year later. His death prompted the design of memorial prints not only of Shuka I, but also of double portraits depicting both Edo superstars — thus greatly extending the usually brief period of production for memorial images. (Usually, shini-e were issued within a week, and sometimes as little as 3-4 days, of an actor's death.) Shini-e involving Danjûrô VIII are known featuring at least five themes: (1) conventional depictions in death robes with related Buddhist iconography and burial information; (2) portrayals of the actor in famous stage roles; (3) designs depicting or expressing the sadness of the actor's fans; (4) scenes of Danjûrô VIII's suicide, often imaginary in their circumstances; and (5) compositions hinting at the reasons for his suicide. Occasionally a single Danjûrô shini-e integrated two or more of these themes.

The shini-e genre appears to have nearly disappeared by Meiji 37 (1904) with the deaths of the great triumvirate of Meiji-period stars known as Dan-Kiku-Sa, namely, Ichikawa Danjûrô IX (1839 - 1903), Onoe Kikugorô V, 1844 - 1903), and Ichikawa Sadanji I (1842 - 1904). Memorial prints naturally followed their deaths, but with the demise of ukiyo-e and the rise of other media such as photography and lithography, shini-e were no longer finacially viable options for memorializing actors and artists. Only a small handful of examples are known from the 1910s-1920s.


Tamashichi Unsigned 2 Nakamura Tamashichi (1836 - 2/15/1860) was a promising young Osaka actor whose death at the age of twenty-four brought forth a number of memorial prints. He was the son of the actor Nakamura Shikan III (who had died in 1847) and the nephew and adopted son of the star actor Nakamura Utaemon IV (1798 - 2/17/1852).

Tamashichi made his debut on the kabuki stage in the first month of 1849 when he played the role of a manzai dancer at the Chikugo theater. Tamashichi had an early connection with shini-e production when, as a mere sixteen year old, he contributed a dedication and poem for a memorial print designed by the artist Takigawa Sadakatsu to commemorate the death of Tamashichi's uncle Utaemon IV in 1852.

Eight years later, the death of the popular Tamashichi resulted in various unsigned shini-e, some from the hands of only modestly skilled artists or students. This was often the case when very popular actors died. With a limited number of accomplished print designers available on short notice, some shini-e were printed rather crudely, suggesting a hurried attempt by publishers to recruit printmakers from the lower ranks and rush the production and sales of shini-e. Two such examples are shown above right and immediate left.

Prints like these, somewhat perfunctory in their execution, have tarnished the reputation of shini-e. The application of color on the print above was done carelessly, while the drawing of the figure on the left is hardly impressive (note, for example, the crude hands). Few collectors or scholars have paid shini-e much attention, and only the occasional highly successful example has been discussed (Utagawa Kunisada's 1858 memorial portrait of Utagawa Hiroshige comes to mind). The poem on the print at the top right reads: Shinnen mo okurade nehan no kazu ni iru ("Not being late for the New Year, in with the fold in Nirvana").


Tamashichi Unsigned 3 There were, however, some excellent shini-e that warrant further study. The example on the immediate right is more finely printed than the prints shown above. It is a deluxe editon with densely printed colors and metallic pigments.

The chûban print is dated the second month, fifteenth day of Ansei 7 (1860; as there were six years in the Ansei era, Ansei 7 is equivalent to Man'en 1, which began January 23, 1860). It is unsigned, but given the high quality, it was likely designed by one of the accomplished artists of the period, perhaps Nakai Yoshitaki.

Tamashichi is not portrayed wearing conventional shini sôzoku, but rather the dress of an actor during performance. He carries the long and short swords of a samurai, and a sedge hat (amigasa, or "woven hat") lies behind him, suggesting he has been hiding his identity.

Tamashichi played the role of Ogura Hangan in Hime kurabe futaba ezôshi ("Picture Book Comparison of Twin Leaves and the Princess") at the Chikugo Theater, Osaka in 1/1860, and then at the Shijô northside theater in Kyoto, 2/1860. It was his last performance.

This portrait of Tamashichi in his final role was converted from a conventional actor portrait for the 1/1860 Osaka production into a shini-e by the addition of the memorial stone, lotus leaves, and inscriptions. Tamashichi stands against a velvety black ground, his purple robe patterned with white cranes in reserve. Delicately printed (metallic) falling lotus leaves are only faintly visible in this web illustration.

Tamashichi atozurieThe memorial stone on a bed of lotus leaves bears an inscription that refers to Tamashichi as Kagyoku, his literary name or haigô, and includes his date of death. The cursive-style script at the upper left is Tamashichi's jisei, which reads, Nehane no [...?] tanomoshiya mukau tsuru. Nakamura Tamashichi (translated roughly as "The trustworthy crane goes to face his immortality."). Tamashichi's temple is also given as the Nakadera-machi Shôhôji.

There is something else that is unusual about this shini-e, at least in terms of marketing to a grieving population of Tamashichi's fans — it was reissued as an atozuri-e (later impression, in this case a standard edition). The later printings (immediate left) omitted the metallics, purple colorant, and black background.

It appears that distribution of the deluxe edition (presumably in small numbers) was not sufficient to satisfy the demand for this image of Tamashichi, a much-loved figure in the kabuki world. The rising star had been ill for about two years, and theater managers and fans worried that he would be forced to retire and that attendance in the theaters would drop. Desiring to please his fans, the loyal Tamashichi continued acting. There followed an slow deterioration in his health until, after performing in the 1860 Kyoto production for 15 days, Tamashichi’s illness finally overwhelmed him. He received "last day" gifts from his fans and retired to his dressing room in the evening, where he collapsed and died. In response to this loss, the publisher (not indicated on either version) reissued the design as a less expensive atozuri-e to make it available to a larger number of fans (and no doubt to capitalize on more sales). © 1999-2008 by John Fiorillo



  • Dien, A.: "Beyond the Floating World: The Memorial Prints of Kabuki Actors,: in: Notes from the President, Ukiyo-e Society of America, Sept. 1989, pp. 1-6.
  • Hare, T.: "Swan Songs: Love and Death in the Narratives of Jôruri." Lecture delivered at the symposium, The Final Bow: Kabuki Actors in Life, Death, and Beyond. Stanford University, April 29, 2005.
  • Hayashi, Y.: 'Shini-e kô' ["Study of Death Prints"], in: Ukiyo-e Geijutsu ["Ukiyo-e Art"]. Tokyo: Japan Ukiyo-e Society, 1975; Vol. 45, pp. 3-15 and Vol. 46, pp. 3-21.
  • Keyes, R.: Hirosada: Osaka Printmaker. Long Beach, 1984, pp. 14 and 84-86, nos. 10-12.
  • Kominz, L.: "The Life and Death of Danjûrô VIII: Kabuki's Greatest Romantic Idol." Lecture delivered at the symposium, The Final Bow: Kabuki Actors in Life, Death, and Beyond. Stanford University, April 29, 2005.
  • Leiter, S.: Kabuki Encyclopedia: An English-Language Adaptation of Kabuki Jiten. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979, p. 129.
  • Matsudaira, S.: Kamigata ukiyo-e no sekai (The World of Kamigata Floating-World Prints"). Osaka, 2000; pp. 172-190
spacer 16
Viewing Japanese Prints
Designed & Written by John Fiorillo
Site launched 1999
All texts and pictures are copyright © (All Rights Reserved)
and may not be reproduced without permission.