An Interview with Kunichika, 1898

KunichikabiobuttonIn October 1898 Kunichika was interviewed for a series of four articles about him, The Meiji-period child of Edo, which appeared in the Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun. He talks anecdotally about his early life in Edo and describes a metropolitan milieu of artists and patrons. In the introduction to the series, the reporter wrote:

...his house is located on the (north) side of Higashi Kumagaya-Inari. Although his residence is just a partitioned tenement house, it has an elegant, latticed door, a nameplate and letterbox. Inside, the entry...leads to a room with worn tatami mats upon which a long hibachi has been placed. The space is also adorned with a Buddhist altar. A cluttered desk stands at the back of the miserable two-tatami room; it is hard to believe that the well-known artist Kunichika lives here...Looking around with a piercing gaze and stroking his long white beard, Kunichika talks about the height of prosperity of the Edokko.

"I'm a total eccentric, this is from an old man. I don't know what my grandfather called himself, but he was a carpenter in Yushima. My mother wanted to give us a good upbringing, my father worked and was a lifelong adherent of the Hokke sect. That makes me a mix of Hokke and Ikko. My father's name was Oshima Kuju, he was the owner of a house in Sajikkenbori in the Kyobashi district. My mother was the daughter of a teahouse proprieter. I was born at the Sannjikkenbori house so this makes me a child of the low city area of Kiyobashi. I am embarrassed to discuss this, but my father had a kappa (water demon) tattooed on the back of his thigh pointing upwards towards his backside, he was known as kappa no kuju - he was totally unsuited to to being head of a household but he was a handsome man. My mother as a young woman fell for him at first sight, they set up house together. I was the second son, my older brother is called Chokichi, since my father was called Kuju and my mother was called Oyae, I was given the name Yasohachi and the reason why I was given the name Arakawa Yasohachi is quite odd. I was thirteen or fourteen years old and there was a practice called myoji gomen; my brother was named Oshima, which he didn't like like because it was socially inferior so we decided to take on the name Arakawa from my mother's side of the family. The whole family became known as Arakawa.

During my father's life things were good for us. He opened a bathhouse called Oshuya but for whatever reason, his heart wasn't in it and he turned the business over to someone else. My brother had a shop selling battledores in the Nihonbashi district. I thought at the time I'd have a go at painting the pictures on the backs so I became a student of Ichiyusai Chikanobu but as soon as I got the hang of it I became a student of Toyokuni (III) who did the illustrations for the Inaka Genji. He was referred to as the "Master Toyokuni". I trained with him for seventeen years. I learnt that he was at the studio of Toyokuni I for seventeen years as well so I thought that was really odd. But if I set that aside I'd like to say that I have moved home 117 times since leaving my place of birth. I'm not boasting but Hokusai moved eighty times, so as far as moving goes I have one up on Hokusai. Sometimes I moved three times in a single day which is pretty odd, so I made notes in my diary, but you must understand that when I did things or where I was might be muddled.

The first time I set up house was in Yanagishima with a woman called Ohana - that was when I made my biggest mistake. At the time the firefighter Shinmon Tatsugoro was a big figure. There were problems one night when some ushers trashed a theatre after having confronted some gatecrashers. The Kyobashi publisher Shimizuya Naojiro commissioned me to depict the fight, so I designed and then had published a picture of the actors Hikosaburo, Kikugoro and Tanosuke brandishing sticks and a lot of people clad in black fleeing away from them.. Shinmon decided that it was him and his followers who were shown running away and so a huge gang came to my house, making a lot of noise and smashing things up. They also went and wreaked havoc at the house of my teacher Kunisada in Itsutume; it got Kunisada really worried. Another student, Yoshitsuya was there and since he was a Shinmon follower I tried to mediate through him. Due to my efforts we arrived at a reconcilliation.

At the time my work was selling well, it might sound odd but my work was doing better than my teacher's, so as punishment he took the name 'Kunichika' away from me. There was nothing I could do about it so I took the name 'Ichiosai' but Kunisada went to the publishers' and refused to let them even use this name. Then Shinoda Sengyo (Kazuhiko) stepped in on my behalf and the name 'Kunichika' was reinstated. It was a real blow to me at the time. After that I moved to Otowacho in Nihonbashi, it was a good place and the plants all had the names of the local geisha. There was a house warming party and Kuniteru was noisily scattering decorative paper drawn with images for votive offerings on printed single sheets of mulberry paper. For some reason there were  a lot of secret police (okappiki) living in Otowacho and I was indebted to the private detective Mameoto. I had received gifts of clothes and so on so I did the rounds to thank everyone and by the time I got back, everyone had gathered at the house; the big spender Mr Tsuto of Yamashiro riverbank, Kwanabe Kyosai, Ishii Dainoshin, a practitoner of sword play from the Ueno Hirokoji area and Hashimoto Sakuzo of the Sakakibara clan, known today as Yoshu Chikanobu. I had drunk too much and went upstairs to take a nap and had just dozed off when for some reason I heard a noise that woke me up. Kyosai was drunk and had stripped off Tsuto's brown overcoat and painted on it by dunking it in a porcelain bowl full of the kind of ink they use for writing public notices. Tsuto made a face and then Kyosai drew a water sprite in the middle of it. Just like me - sake is no good for Kyosai. Everyone was staring at him and he drew something on Chinese style paper and grunted in satisfaction. Two or three tatami makers racks were lined up in a row in the garden and on them were the new paper sliding doors for the entrance to the second floor; a geisha stood holding the ink whilst Kyosai drew a picture on them. That was all well and good, but then he stamped on the new sliding door and put a gaping hole in it. I can't look upon violence as just a spectator, so I went up to him and said, "Look Kyosai, you're doing a terrible thing here, please stop." But since I said this abruptly, and I was so drunk, Kyosai took the brush and painted my face completely black. The dentist Ishii Dainoshin then said, "because you have such buck teeth Kyosai, maybe I should take them out for you." Then Chikanobu drew his sword and jumped in. Kyosai took off and ran into a hedge, but at this time the Momoji stream had become a gutter. Kyosai fell in and looked like a sewer rat and there was me - my face painted black - so I laughed at him. Afterwards Kyosai came by my place and in our own way, we made up. Kyosai should at least be admired for that. But because Chikanobu drew his sword, that was too much, Kyosai broke off his relationship with him.

With grateful thanks to Amy Reigle Newland for permission to reproduce her translation of this interview.

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