Kunichika - Master of Red

Kunichika - Master of Red

Unlike most artists of the Media period, Kunichika made use of strong reds, often as background colors, rather than the softer more subtle colors that had been previously used. Contemporary observers noted Kunichika's skillful use of color in his actor prints, but he was also criticized for his color choices as being too garish and common.

Safflower was the most prolific red dye in ukiyo-e prints from the Edo period and its color ranges from pale pink to red. In 1869 it was replaced by imported cochineal carmine [a red insect dye]. Carmine remained the primary red for the next two decades, often combined with vermillion. In 1877, eosine appeared as the first synthetic red dye.

Ref: https://www.viewingjapaneseprints.net/texts/topics_faq/anilinedyes.html

red ink pigments

Passion for the Stage

Perhaps it was Kunichika's passion for the theatre and actors that inspired him to use brilliant reds so frequently. Kabuki plays are often sensational, dramatic and violent, the actors larger than life. What better color than red to impart the experience of attending a play, and providing the appropriate surreal backdrop for the actors craft.

Benkei Fashions Parodied

Above, the actor Nakamura Shikan from the series Benkei Fashions Parodied, a commentary on popular fashions among trendy Edo young men or street toughs.  The prints also reference the legend of Benkei through the the checked material backgrounds. Benkei was  a samurai monk from the middle ages who became popular with young men of the mid-nineteenth century. These youths adopted a dress of broad checked cloth called Benkei-jima.


Subtle to Glorious

Being the master of red, Kunichika applied his signature color in all degrees of intensity. As subtle accents designed to bring attention to a small feature of a print, and make the viewers gaze dance across the scene, to larger components such as the skirts of the abalone divers from "Genji Goju-yo Jo" (The Contemporary Fifty-four Feelings).

abalone divers aoi

To the glorious saturated unbroken reds that were prominent in many of his actor prints. Such as this print (below) of actor Ichikawa Sadanji wearing a bat cape for protection against the rain. From a series of 24 prints that show the intrusion of civilization.

ichikawa sadanji kunichika red print


Thirty-six Famous Tokyo Restaurants

This colorful series pairs famous geisha with famous Tokyo eateries. In the series, the rectangular panel at top left shows speciality dishes or views from the restaurant. The background is split diagonally with a strong red textile pattern in the top half called "Asa no ha" based on hemp leaves. The Asa no ha pattern is one of the most popular traditional patterns often seen on Japanese kimono, and Kunichika utilized it heavily as a design element in the backgrounds of many of his prints.

famous Tokyo eateries


Below we see three prints from the series of "Six Famous Places of Tokyo" (Tokyo Meisho Rokassen no Uchi), another example of using strong reds to create the "stage" for the actor or person in the foreground.

six famous places in tokyo


In 1893, Kunichika was commissioned to create the series "One Hundred Roles of Baiko," (below) chronicling the various characters played by the famous actor Onoe Kikugoro V, whose stage name was "Baiko." Out of the hundred prints in the series, only a handful employ red backgrounds. This demonstrates that Kunichika used red strategically and wasn't dependent on the color to support his actor prints (yakusha-e).

One Hundred Roles of Baiko


Beauties in Red

Kunichika often used red to add power to scenes, even those of beautiful women "bijin-ga". In the case of this print, from the series "36 Good and Evil Beauties", these are not actors, playing roles, but real famous, and infamous women from history. The stark use of red in the top half of the print adds an energetic element that speaks to the power of the subjects and their stories.

36 Good and Evil Beauties


Big Head Red

These okubi-e or "big-head portraits", blended large actor faces at the climax of a play with dynamic, bold scarlet backgrounds.

"For the Japanese the color red meant progress and enlightenment in the new era of Western-style progress."

okubi-e or "big-head portraits



Even Kunichika's sketches for the okubi-e are punctuated by the color accents - namely the red color in the thin slashes of the actors lips.

Kunichika's sketches


In closing, Kunichika's adoption and utilization of the color red in his work illustrates the way he thought about his subject matter, and his artistic character. The color red is more than a pigment, it's a window into the mind and creative soul of the artist.

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