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Utagawa, Kuniyoshi suikoden is a bound selection of fifty-six color woodblock musha-e or warrior prints by Kuniyoshi Utagawa, fifty-five of them from his great series Tsûzoku Suikoden gôketsu hyaku-hachi-nin no hitori ("The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden All Told"). Utagawa became a well-regarded warrior printmaker in his time, and his vibrant use of color and action has inspired Manga and Anime artists centuries later.

Example of traditional fukuro toji style binding. Figure from Japanese Bookbinding.

The binding of this print book was thought to be in a traditional fukuro toji style, as seen in the image above. In this style the leaves of thin Japanese paper that make up the textblock are folded in half creating the fore-edge, are secured by a paper staple, before being covered and bound by sewing the loose edges at the spine in a traditional four-hole side stitch. However with further investigation, the construction of this binding turned out to be much more complex.

Example of delaminated manuscript used to support the woodblock prints

A repurposed manuscript was used as the substrate for the fifty-six woodblock prints that were lined with heavy weight paper after printing. (Japanese woodblock prints are typically printed on very thin paper in order to achieve a clean, vibrant result.) Evidence of these layers can be seen in Figure 3. Because of this bulkiness it was necessary for the binder to construct a supportive textblock that could withstand the thickness and weight of the woodblock prints.

Examples of delamination and tears along fore-edge revealing the inner structure of the repurposed manuscript

Two manuscript text leaves were cut at their fore-edges opening the folds, and were overlapped to create a double thick leaf, as seen in Figure 4. This was achieved by adhering the two layers of manuscript paper together before adhering the woodblock prints on either side of the folded leaf as illustrated in Figure 5. A stub was then required to account for the increased thickness of the textblock as the prints do not extend into the area of sewing. If stubs were not added to equal the new dimensions of the textblock, the spine would be significantly thinner than the rest of the textblock, which would cause the binding to fan out amongst other structural issues that would occur.

Example and illustration depicting how the manuscript paper was reconfigured for the prints Note: the yellow indicates where the lamination occurred to recreate a thicker version of a mountain fold.

Once the leaves and stubs were in place, two paper staples were laced through punctured holes in the textblock to secure it. The textblock was plowed at head, tail, and spine to create smooth, uniform edges. Evidence of this can be seen by the cut off script within the woodblock prints (see Figure 6). Plowing or trimming the textblock was a common practice in both Eastern and Western binding to give a clean, finished appearance.

Example of cut off text along the top edge of the textblock

While it is unclear why new, thicker paper was not used as opposed to going through this extensive process of repurposing previously bound material, it is known that paper was often in high demand, and could be quite costly. It was also acceptable practice for books to be completely disbound and rebound as normal wear and tear occurred to ensure accessibility to the text. Although it is unfortunate damage of the object, the delamination between both the manuscript and the woodblock prints, and between layers of manuscript allowed accessibility to the interior structure of the textblock, which made it readily available for this investigation.

Heroes of the Popular Suikoden


For how Japanese bindings are made, see Ikegami, Kojiro, Japanese Bookbinding: Instructions from a Master Crastman, Weatherhill, New York, 2003.

For description of individual prints, see Robinson, B.W. Kuniyoshi: the warrior prints. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982; and Klompmakers, I. Of brigands and bravery: Kuniyoshi's heroes of the Suikoden. Leiden, Netherlands: Hotei Publishing, 1998.

For images and additional information, see the Kuniyoshi Project website(opens in a new tab) or Artelino(opens in a new tab).

For a quick background on Kuniyoshi, see this Wikipedia article(opens in a new tab).

Header Image: Utagawa, Kuniyoshi suikoden; Heroes of the Popular Suikoden.

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