David M. Kahn

From Discourse 5

All photos David M. Kahn

PRECEDING PAGE: Fig. 1, Tsugaru Kite Painting, origin likely Hirosaki. Kite maker unknown, Raiko, 38 x 26 ¼”.

THIS PAGE: Fig. 2, origin unknown. Fujimoto Hiromu or Hirotake, Soga Brothers, 29 ¾ x 31 ¾”.

Long ago in 1962, David Kung published a charming, limited edition book, Japanese Kites: A Vanishing Art, which drew attention to the exquisite work of elderly Japanese kite makers, some of whom had embarked upon their kite-making careers at the turn of the 19th into the 20th centuries. Scott Skinner first introduced me to this book. Kung expressed concern that the traditional craft of the Japanese kite maker might eventually die out with its then-aging practitioners.

The Japanese market for hand-painted, traditional kites made by professional kite makers has unquestionably been shrinking over the years. Relatively few professionals seem to still be in business and the prices for their work has soared. The contrast between the huge number of hand-painted kites readily available in Japanese stores selling folk arts, or mingei, as recently as the 1980s versus today is striking. These days

the stock of hand-painted kites looks distressingly thin even at once-reliable outlets such as the wonderful gift shop of the Japan Rural Toy Museum in Kurashiki near Okayama.

Against this background, I was thrilled when recently given the opportunity to purchase about three dozen hand-painted Japanese kite paintings, or tako-e, which had been acquired in Japan during the 1960s by a dealer in Japanese folk art. The 1960s were perhaps the last golden age of the Japanese kite. It is conceivable that some of the tako-e date to before the 1960s; all that I could ascertain is that the tako-e were originally purchased during the 1960s.

Kite makers typically begin work on a tako- e by sketching out a basic design in pencil. That design is then overlaid with black ink applied with a brush. Sometimes, to save labor, kite makers print the kite’s basic design from a woodblock. Either way, colors are then painted in and the tako-e is finally mounted on a frame of bamboo or other lightweight material.

Occasionally, tako-e were, and are, produced specifically for collectors and never really intended to be mounted for flying. In other cases, tako-e were set aside as part of an individual kite maker’s stock, ready to be mounted on frames to meet market demand whenever the need might arise. For example, when one of Tokyo’s last traditional kite makers, the famous Hashimoto Teizo, died in 1993, he left behind a substantial quantity of unmounted tako-e in his shop. At one point the Kite Museum in Tokyo was selling for 1,000-1,500 Yen (then about $8.00-$12.00) simple, black and white tako-e that had b e e n p r in t e d by Ha s h im o t o f r o m woodblocks. The point of selling these tako- e was to raise money for a Hashimoto memorial.

Fig. 3, origin unknown. Kite maker unknown,

Chinese Lion with Peonies, 13 ¼ x 18 ½”.

Fig. 4, Tottori? Kite maker unknown,

Ushiwakamaru, 26 ¼ x 26 ½”.

The group of 1960s tako-e that I recently purchased includes the work of well-known makers such as Hashimoto, as well as Kinoshita Kaiichi from Takamatsu. There are also beautiful examples of work by makers I have so far been unable to identify. In some cases, the places of origin of some of the tako-e are also difficult to ascertain.

By way of background to the story of this acquisition, in the early 1990s I purchased a dozen or so 1960s tako-e from the same source. At the time I was unaware of the existence of the additional several dozen kite paintings. About three years ago I bumped into the person who sold me the initial dozen or so tako-e and asked if she happened to have any others. To my surprise she indicated that she did, but that she was about to move from New York to the West Coast and would get in touch with me after settling down. Only in early 2009 were we finally able to rendezvous in San Francisco so that I could acquire the

collection of tako-e that she had been holding onto all these years.

In my view the show stopper in the group is an amazing, fairly large Tsugaru kite painting representing Minamoto no Yorimitsu, also known as Raiko, in the middle of an altercation with the demon Shuten Doji (Fig. 1). The latter’s misdeeds included the usual: kidnapping and consuming maidens, etc. Even after having had his head hacked off, Shuten Doji remained a threat. His disembodied head is depicted sailing through the air in a final attempt to best Raiko. Luckily, Raiko was equipped with a magic helmet which Shuten Doji’s deadly fangs were unable to penetrate.

This tako-e is very elaborately drawn and carefully painted. It is probably from the City of Hirosaki. The kite maker made extensive use of subtle rust, brown, and other tints that contrast dramatically with the sometimes garish reds and greens that are the hallmark of Tsugaru kites produced in recent decades, often by amateur, versus professional, kite makers. The swirling curls of the demon’s mien are particularly impressive. It is quite possible that this tako-e was meant to end up in the hands of a collector rather than to be mounted on a frame for flying.

Three kites in the collection are from the hand of a talented craftsman whose geographic origins are difficult to pinpoint given that he created kites in so many different sizes and shapes. The three include an oval, a diamond, and a rectangle. Two kites by this kite maker (an irregularly- shaped one and a rectangle) appear in a curious little volume, Kite, A Souvenir Postcard Book, published in Japan in 1998 where they are identified only as having been painted by “Fujimoto.” Their place of origin is not noted. Fujimoto generally

ABOVE LEFT: Fig. 5, Edo Kite Painting, Tokyo. Probably by Fujii Hanjiro, Kintaro and Tsuna, 43

½ x 26”. ABOVE RIGHT: Fig. 6, Edo Kite Painting, Tokyo. Probably by Fujii Hanjiro, Battle of Okehazama, 42 x 26”. BELOW LEFT: Fig. 7, Edo Kite Painting, Tokyo. Hashimoto Teizo, Yorimitsu (Raiko), 32 x 19”. BELOW RIGHT: Fig. 8, Takamatsu. Kinoshita Kaiichi, Semi, 24 ¾ x 19 ½”.

signed his work with an unusual white seal that appears on all three of the newly acquired tako-e. Because Japanese kanji representing personal names can often be read in different ways, his first name, according to the seal, could be either Hiromu or Hirotake. Characteristic of his style is a boldly painted tako-e representing the Soga Brothers, Goro and Juro: two Japanese heroes renowned for avenging their father’s murder (Fig. 2). The brother at the top is shown holding aloft a torch, indicating that we are viewing a night scene. The palette of this, and Fujimoto’s other works, is dominated by very unusual pastel shades of raspberry, pink, purple, and green. The kite painting’s outer edge was carefully cut with numerous notches to prepare it for mounting on a frame. The reverse side of the outer edge is crisscrossed with measured lines and numbers that enabled the kite maker to pinpoint the proper location for each notch and, eventually, each strut of the frame.

One of my favorite tako-e in the group is one of the smallest (Fig. 3). An identical example is illustrated in the January 2008 issue of the magazine The Mingei published by Tokyo’s Mingeikan, or Folk Art Museum. There, the subject of the tako-e is identified as “Karashishi Botan,” or Chinese Lion-dog with Peonies. It is from the Enshu Yokosuka region around Kanagawa and Shizuoka. Unfortunately, the kite painting is not otherwise identified in The Mingei as to either date or maker.

Equally intriguing is a diamond-shaped tako-e bearing the image of an historical figure about whom a huge body of myths and legends was fabricated (Fig. 4). When he was a child, as he is depicted here, he was known as Ushiwakamaru. Later his name changed to Yoshitsune once he became an adult. The open fan young Ushiwakamaru holds before him references

his challenge to a mature and powerful warrior-monk, Benkei. They did battle at the Gojo Bridge in Kyoto in a David-and- Goliath-like encounter, the outcome of which can readily be imagined. Following the fight, Benkei became Ushiwakamaru’s retainer. Many different diamond-shaped kites were produced in Kyushu, Japan’s southern-most island, particularly in the Nagasaki region. But I would hazard a guess that this particular diamond-shaped kite is more likely to have come from the area around the city of Tottori on the Japan Sea side of the main island of Honshu.

Four elaborately painted, large Edo kite paintings in the collection stand out. They are unsigned. However, stylistically they appear to be by the hand of Fujii Hanjiro, an Edo kite maker whose work is illustrated in Saito Tadao’s small book, Tako Zukuri, published in 1975. An interesting example of Fujii’s work is a design featuring the boy hero Kintaro clinging to a carp with the warrior Watanabe no Tsuna overlooking the scene (Fig. 5). Tsuna is known for having accompanied the hero Raiko during the fight with the demon Shuten Doji – an encounter depicted on the Tsugaru kite described earlier. Why Watanbe no Tsuna is paired here with Kintaro, however, is unclear. Flecks of gold and silver metallic paint were used to give features such as the fish’s gills and the arrows’ feathers an iridescent sheen that does not show up especially well in photographs.

Another of Fujii’s kite paintings depicts the Battle of Okehazama (Fig. 6), which took place in 1560 between the forces of Oda Nobunaga and Imagawa Yoshimoto. The brilliant military leader Oda won and went on to rule all of Japan. The two figures in the kite painting may represent Oda and Imagawa, although they did not, in fact, directly confront one another during the encounter.

LEFT: Fig. 9, Takamatsu. Kinoshita Kaiichi, Shojo, 25 ¼ x 24”. RIGHT: Fig. 10, origin unknown. Kite maker unknown, Daruma, 25 ¼ x 20 ¾”.

Two examples of the work of famed Tokyo kite maker Hashimoto Teizo are in the collection. The larger and more important of the two is a brilliantly colored kite painting representing Raiko going at it with Shuten Doji (Fig. 7), the same subject depicted in the large and impressive Tsugaru tako-e already described. Here the scene is identified by the kanji for Yorimitsu, short for Minamoto no Yorimitsu, another name for Raiko. In the years leading up to his death in 1993, Hashimoto’s hand became a bit unsteady and his painting could be somewhat fuzzy as evidenced by both kites and kite paintings I purchased directly from his shop around that time. (Mrs. Hashimoto handled the sales transactions in a small vestibule while Hashimoto occupied himself in the adjoining workshop, waving happily to visitors.) In contrast, the drawing here is crisp and bold, identifying the tako-e as being from Hashimoto’s more vibrant, earlier period of kite painting.

Kinoshita Kaiichi, a kite maker from Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku, was profiled in David Kung’s Japanese Kites: A Vanishing Art. Kinoshita is represented by four tako-e in the group. One of his designs represents a semi (Fig. 8), or cicada – interesting because Kinoshita apparently produced sufficient examples of the same design for them to have been exported for sale to the US. Over the years I have acquired a couple of these made-for-export semis. How widely they might have been distributed is difficult to say. They were folded, bagged, and came with instructions for inserting struts to prepare them for flying. Another of Kinoshita’s tako-e represents a very rotund Shojo (Fig. 9), a sea spirit renowned for her fondness for alcohol. Shojo is depicted holding a liquor- filled bowl up to her lips while clasping a dipper with her other hand. There is a play in the classical Noh repertory named for Shojo.

One additional kite painting is worth m e n t io n in g : a n u n u s u a l ly – s h a p e d Daruma, the legendary monk in Japanese folk culture who supposedly sat motionless in meditation for so many years that his arms and legs eventually fell away (Fig. 10). Most often Daruma’s image is painted on a rectangular-shaped kite. Here, however, the intention was obviously to have the kite follow the silhouette of Daruma’s actual, limbless form. Daruma is represented with a fiery expression on his face and the character inori, which means a wish or a prayer, painted on his chest. At New Years in Japan, papier mache Daruma dolls are sold with their pupils left blank. Their buyers make a wish while painting in one pupil. When the wish comes true the other pupil is filled in. Evidently this procedure was to be followed with respect to this representation of Daruma. I have seen many different Daruma kites and kite paintings, but never one with its pupils left blank as is the case here. The tako-e has been prepared for mounting on a frame with notches cut for struts, etc.

The surfacing of these and other tako-e in the recently-acquired group was a highly unusual event. Occasionally I find a small number of older Japanese kites or kite paintings for sale either in the United States or Japan. But not three dozen.

These newly uncovered kite paintings, together with the other dozen or so that I initially acquired in the early 1990s, provide an interesting and colorful snapshot of the wide variety of kites that were available in the Japanese market during the 1960s. Many of these kites have long since ceased to be made.

Special thanks to Kusuno Shoko for assistance with translations.