Shiro Kasamatsu - A Glimpse at the Blocks

(June 2003 -- Kyoto, Japan)

During a recent visit to the Unsodo Publishing House in Kyoto, Mr. Yamada, the President and owner gave me unexpectedly the opportunity to study some woodblocks of Shiro Kasamatsu. And here, I do not refer to his prints--instead, I'm now talking about the actual carved woodblocks.



Left: Shiro Kasamatsu's print, "Mitake Shosen Kyo," (1954), wrapped on top of the corresponding set of woodblocks.


Following a cordial greeting, I was then guided by Mr. Yamada into Unsodo's fire-safe storage area, known as a kura. There, on tall staircases of this storage room, where apart from many books and paper supplies stored on several steel shelves, were stored many sets of woodblocks for the prints by Kasamatsu, Okada and likely additional artists. Here then, these valuable woodblocks were kept under the appropriate steady climatic conditions; as changes of temperature and humidity are the worst enemies of woodblocks, causing warping and cracking.


Left: Kasamatsu's "Nikko Jinbashi" (upper), "Rice Planting" (lower)

Right: Various prints by Okada.

Kasamatsu's most famous design: "Nikko Kegon Falls," with its full set of five cherrywood blocks.

As we can see, during storage each carved face is separated by several layers of newsprint to prevent scratches and damage, with the set of blocks is tied together with a cord. Some of the apparent aging of these old cords tells us how long already the blocks have been stored tied together. On top of each stack is one original print, sometimes two or three for immediate identification and probably an aid for the printer to correctly match the colors for the later reprints. For me, as a collector I somehow feel pain, seeing such excellent prints abused as merely "wrapping paper."


Okada's "Fuji" - Perfectly wrapped.

Kasamatsu's - "Ikebana"


Left: Mr. Yamada is seen opening the bundle of the "Kegon Falls" blocks. This set is comprised of only five wooden blocks, however, four of them are carved on BOTH sides, so that together with the keyblock in total nine blocks are sufficient to print the famous view of the "Nikko Kegon Falls."

Additionally, several of these blocks allow the simultaneous use of two different colors, providing that these areas are sufficiently separated from each other to prevent smudging. On each of the blocks we recognize in the lower left corner the L-shaped "kento mark" (kagi) and in the upper left side the straight shaped "kento mark" (hikitsuge). Both of these alignment marks are essential for the so-called "registration" of the blocks, or, simplier said, to align the paper correctly on each block. Remaining printing ink in the kagi and next to the hikitsuge are responsible for the "dirty triangle" on the right lower corner of many prints and for the mark on the right upper side - indicating that the print is indeed handmade. Often, in case of paper with an uneven, natural edge, a small straight edge of paper is cut off to enable alignment in the kagi.

The printing work itself is a very fast process, as the printer is paid for the finished print according to the number printed, therefore, no time for unnecessary cleaning is wasted, According to the literature, a skilled printer needs only approximately 30 seconds time to pull a "key-block" and one minute for a color block.


 The Blocks:

Block 1: The black-inked "key-block."

Block 2: Grey and brown.

Block 3: Grey and blue.



Block 4: Grey and light grey.

Block 5: Again, several shades of grey.

Block 6: Blue



Block 7: Ochre and black.

Block 8: Shades of orange.

Block 9: Red and blue.

Note, on the blocks 8 and 9 we can clearly still see where some paper is left. In the process of making of a print first the "key-block" (No. 1) is carved. Then, several prints on very thin paper are pulled (printed) from this "key-block," showing only the print's black contours, and subsequently glued face down on further blocks, one for each color. Next, the artist or the printer "paints" on each block, or better, the paper on its face, the color, which are the parts to remain (uncarved) on the block. In the final step the carver removes all unnecessary material on the block. (To learn more about the "printing process," see our article article titled "Hanshita," or Black Ink "Key-block" Outlines.")

The title, in Japanese "kanji."

The margin: Where are the seals?

The newsprint's date: May 25, 2000.

 The newspaper which was used to wrap the blocks is dated May 25, 2002, thus indicating that the last run of reprints, done by Unsodo's contract printer Toda, was just before this date.


Surprisingly however, the "right" margin of the keyblock - which later becomes the left margin of the paper - does not show any seals!! I expected there to find at least the Unsodo Han "publisher's seal" and the Shinmi/Nagashima "printer/carver seals." I always thought (and this was an understanding I got from Unsodo) that such essential information was a part of the "keyblock," or at least inserted as a "koma", a kind of insert into the "keyblock." Now I learned that these data are printed separately onto the print - so it seems, we never stop to learn appearently! A study of further sets of blocks further confirmed this - no seals on the "keyblocks."

Closing thoughts:     In the end then, "How to end such a day after visiting Unsodo in Kyoto....??"

Simple. I visited the dance festival "Kamogawa Odori," strolled along the famous river banks of the Kamo River, enjoyed together with Japanese friends food and beer, and then finally went back to my home in Tokyo that same evening - the Nozomi Shinkansen Train taking only 2:16 for the 300 miles!!

(I want to express my deepest thanks to Mr. Yamada of Unsodo for allowing me the opportunity to study their many woodblocks.)

(c) Andreas Grund and Thomas Crossland -- June 2003

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