A Book Far in Advance of its Time; Printed with Movable Type

Haseo [libretto for the Noh play Haseo].

14 leaves of differing color gampi paper treated with gofun, bound in two “quires” & sewn together. Small 4to (238 x 179 mm.), orig. semi-stiff pale gray wrappers with mica woodblock-printed designs of wisteria in a garland pattern (upper cover with a small stain), orig. printed label on upper cover. [Saga, near Kyoto: about 1607].

One of the series of 100 Noh plays produced at the famous private press in Saga, just north of Kyoto. These sumptuous luxury editions were printed for the wealthy and enlightened merchant Suminokura Soan (1571-1632), in collaboration with his calligraphy teacher Koetsu, a leading cultural figure of his day, famous as an artist, potter, lacquerer, and connoisseur. They are amongst the most remarkable books created in Japan or anywhere else; their design is far in advance of anything produced in the West. Issued in limited numbers, they were intended for private distribution to an elite audience, friends and acquaintances of the creators who formed the patrons of the Saga artistic community.

Printed with movable type on luxurious thick paper, they books have, according to Hillier, a modernity in design matched only by William Blake and the French artists’ books of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They reveal the beauty of native Japanese calligraphy. The movable type is based on the calligraphy of Koetsu.

This series of mostly chants from Noh plays comprises “small, pamphlet-size books, each of about twelve or thirteen sheets, whose outstanding feature is the decoration, invariably of mica-printed patterns on stained or dyed paper, which is of a distinction that immediately links them with the collaborative scroll works by Koetsu and Sotatsu and which has led to their being called Koetsu-bon…These designs, resulting from a sophisticated adaptation or distortion of natural forms, are notable examples of one of the unique contributions of Japan to world art…

“But, decoration apart, these No booklets are remarkable in other ways. An unusually thick and opaque kind of paper was used, no doubt made specially for these editions, and, contrary to normal practice, it was printed on both sides of the sheet. This ruled out the normal construction of a book whereby the sheets, printed on one side only, were folded in two and bound at the loose edges. The majority of the Koetsu-bon were made up by an entirely different method. A number of sheets, usually six [in this copy, four in one “quire” and three in the other, the outer leaves are used as paste-downs], were placed flat, one above the other, and the batch was then folded in two; two such sections would form a complete book. The binding again was unusual. The outer covers, though printed first as a single sheet, invariably with a mica-printed design, were cut in two and each given a folded turnover along one edge, in which one batch of the folded sheets was lodged. The two halves were then sewn together through the turn-overs of the two halves of the cover, brought together at the inner edge. This is a binding method unique to Japan and is known as Yamato-toji [or retchoso]…

“The Saga Press published many different No texts and the same background designs, printed from the same blocks, recur in several different books…

“These Koetsu-bon represent an astonishing leap forwards to something entirely unprecedented in the history of the illustrated or decorated book. This was the first time a book had been conceived as a single unified work of printed decorative art…not until we come to William Blake’s Prophetic Books, do we encounter anything remotely comparable, and the creation in the West on any appreciable scale of books composed as homogeneously decorated printed works of art did not occur until the appearance of the French livres d’artiste in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”–Hillier, The Art of the Japanese Book, pp. 51-54.

These Koetsu utai bon were produced in three levels of luxury. The finest had mica patterns printed on the text leaves and cover sheets before the text was printed. The next level (our example) also has mica-printed covers but employed papers of different colors (in our copy: cream, pale blue, pale pink, and pale yellow) for the text leaves. The least luxurious version used only cream-colored text paper and had mica patterns printed on the covers.

The movable type characters are based on the calligraphy of Hon’Ami Koetsu (1558-1637); this type is called hiragana majiri, a combination of kanji and kana accompanied by dashes next to each syllable. These dashes are the notations for the pitches to be sung. The notes are not written as specifically as they are in Western sheet music. If the dash goes up, the pitch is raised; if it is straight, the same pitch is continued; and if it goes down, the pitch is lowered.

A very fine and fresh copy, preserved in a chitsu. These Koetsu utai bon are very rare on the market, especially when in excellent condition like our example. The example at the Smithsonian has a variant label on upper cover.

❧ Fischer et al., The Art of Hon’Ami Koetsu, Japanese Renaissance Master, pp. 174-75–“The deluxe editions of utai-bon that were printed at the Saga presses, where Koetsu and Suminokura Soan collaborated to produce classics of earlier Japanese literature, were intended for amateur connoisseurs like themselves. The thick paper, mica-printed motifs, and carved wood type were all part of an artistic whole, meant to complement the aesthetic pleasure of the utai vocal performance.” Murase, Tales of Japan. Scrolls and Prints from the New York Public Library, pp. 157-59.

Price: $7,000.00

Item ID: 6900