Item ID: 9833 Kōtei 皇帝 [libretto for the Noh play]. KŌETSU UTAI BON from the Saga Press.
Kōtei 皇帝 [libretto for the Noh play].
Kōtei 皇帝 [libretto for the Noh play].
Kōtei 皇帝 [libretto for the Noh play].
Kōtei 皇帝 [libretto for the Noh play].
Kōtei 皇帝 [libretto for the Noh play].

A Book Far in Advance of Its Time

The Ultimate Luxury Copy: Tokusei Bon

Kōtei 皇帝 [libretto for the Noh play].

16 pages of text & two pages forming paste-downs of varying shades of pale green gofun biki torinoko (mica-printed) paper, all printed with mica patterns, bound in two “quires” & sewn together. Small 4to (240 x 180 mm.), orig. pale pinkish-brown semi-stiff wrappers with mica woodblock-printed designs of bamboo, orig. printed label on upper cover. [Saga, near Kyoto: about 1607].

An ultimate luxury copy (tokusei bon 特製本), in pristine condition, with mica-printed text leaves and covers, using paper of three shades of pale green. This is the first time we have handled a copy of a Kōetsu utai bon in the most luxurious (of three) state.

This is 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 Kōetsu, a leading cultural figure of his day, famous as an artist, potter, lacquerer, and connoisseur. These books are amongst the most remarkable printed works 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, the books have, according to Hillier, a modernity in design matched only by the works of 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 Kōetsu.

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 Kōetsu and Sōtatsu and which has led to their being called Kōetsu-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 Kōetsu-bon were made up by an entirely different method. A number of sheets, usually six [in this copy, three in the first “quire” and two in the second, 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 recchōsō]…

“These Kōetsu-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.

The Kōetsu utai bon were produced in three levels of luxury. The finest (including our example) have mica patterns or images printed on the text leaves and covers before the text was printed with movable type. The next level also has mica-printed covers but employed papers of different colors and with no mica printing on the text pages. The least luxurious version used only cream-colored text paper and had mica patterns printed on the covers.

Our copy has mica-printed covers, using images of bamboo, and with backgrounds of sprinkled mica. Each of the five sheets with text exhibits different mica-printed images, including leaves, grass adorned with dew in the field, Chinese silver grass, a lattice pattern, leaves with vines, bamboo, waves, and a circular pattern.

The movable type characters are based on the calligraphy of Hon’Ami Kōetsu (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 wooden box. These Kōetsu utai bon are very rare on the market, especially when in excellent condition like our example.


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: $32,500.00

Item ID: 9833