KYOTO – Inuki Tachihara, a 62-year-old self-taught woodblock artist, has devoted half his life to reviving the lost beauty of ukiyo-e masterpieces from the Edo Period (1603-1867) by printing them exactly as they would have been made then, with their original colors. Surviving prints have mostly faded over the years.
Tachihara has been doing this for more than three decades. His first effort was to reproduce the original, vivid colors of “Akafuji” (Mt. Fuji at sunrise), an acclaimed work by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
The beauty of that work in its original colors “would probably have blown me away,” he said.
“Akafuji” was created in the 1830s and is one of the popular “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series. Its formal name is “Gaifu Kaisei” (“Southerly Wind, Clear Sky”).
Most early prints have been lost, and the few that survived have lost much of their original beauty from fading. The reproductions are usually based on the faded colors.
Tachihara latched onto the art of ukiyo-e at the age of 25. He grew up in Mie Prefecture but spent four years in Tokyo working as a jazz saxophonist. He then returned to Yokkaichi in Mie and took a part-time job with a company.
It was then that he came across an ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825). The work featured a beautiful woman and touched him deeply.
“Until then, I hadn’t even understood that ukiyo-e is made by woodblock printing,” Tachihara recalled. “The picture was so beautiful that I felt tempted to try engraving myself.”
Obtaining a set of tools including chisels and woodblocks, he had a go at reproducing his favorite pieces from a book of ukiyo-e works. Studying alone, he learned how to draft a design, cut out a wooden template and print the result.
However, Tachihara soon realized that he had bit off more than he could chew. Traditionally, the labor needed to produce woodblock prints was divided among the illustrator, engraver and printer.
“Each work requires a lifetime of dedication. But as I was new to this, I was doing everything myself — without seeing the problems with that,” Tachihara said. He nevertheless persevered and evolved into a one-man band.
Tachihara was particularly fascinated by the works of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), whose drawings are known for their unique colors and viewed as displaying a spirit of defiance.
Tachihara decided he could make a living from his woodblock prints after reproducing “Soma no Furu Dairi” (Ancient Imperial Residence in Soma), one of Kuniyoshi’s masterpieces. He was 27 at the time.
Not content with producing ordinary replicas, Tachihara strived to achieve the perfect copy.
“I felt compelled to produce accurate resurrections of works of the Edo Period — in everything, from materials to technique,” he said.
But the perfect reproduction seemed impossible to achieve. The skills and knowledge needed to create ukiyo-e were lost in the early Meiji Period (1868-1912) when Westernization swept Japan. This made it impossible to create perfect Edo prints — modern tools, wood, paper and pigments would be different.
But Tachihara refused to give up, believing that the secret of the unique beauty of ukiyo-e prints was the use of traditional pigments and paper. He scoured the country in search of a paper maker who could produce paper made with mulberry fiber, using period techniques.
In an attempt to reproduce accurate colors, Tachihara mixed his own pigments. He said it took nearly 20 years to reproduce indigo to his satisfaction, but achieved it eventually with the help of an indigo-dyeing workshop in Yasu, Shiga Prefecture.
Yoshinori Mori, its owner, marvels at Tachihara’s passion for accurate reproduction. “His commitment to authenticity is so strong that I almost feel he goes too far. When I’m about to give up, Mr. Tachihara gently says, ‘We can do it.’ “
In 2010, he completed the reproduction of “Oatari Kyogen” (“Smash Hit Farces”), a set of seven ukiyo-e pieces by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) that feature Kabuki actors playing popular roles. The set received critical acclaim, and Tachihara considers it his crowning achievement.
In all, Tachihara has reproduced more than 100 ukiyo-e works, and is now focusing on making prints of his own design.
In the fall of 2015, his prints will be exhibited at the Hagi Uragami Museum in Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Toshiro Uragami, the museum’s honorary curator, has been supporting Tachihara ever since his days as a little-known woodblock print artist. In a nod to his protege’s accomplishments over the years, Uragami said he hopes “to preserve all of his works for eternity. They are worth it.”