Bebe Taian: Eisen Keisai: Benihana in Ukiyo-e

March 5, 2011

Eisen Keisai: Benihana in Ukiyo-e

In Edo era, it was high fashion to wear layers of kimono, to go barefoot even in winter, to shave the eyebrows and darken the teeth of married women, and to wear extremely beautiful lipstick made of rare red safflower extract. This lipstick is called "benihana", and it's tone changes depending on how much is used. In a single layer, it will be a pale pink tone with a subtle sheen. In many layers, it will be bright, bold poppy red, with a yellowy-green shine!

Real benihana is made with the red safflower extract and condensed in some manner so that it hardens into a red pool of beauty, shining with matcha-green lustre. Safflower extract only yeilds a red colour 1% of the time, and it takes a LOT of this rare extract to make one sake dish of benihana. The real thing can run from $150-400 a jar. It is so expensive, I have heard that even kabuki actors cannot afford to use benihana for performances- it takes too much to produce that bold red, and for their frequent performances, it is not practical. You can purchase real benihana in Japan in a few places, probably especially Kyoto because of their annual Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages). You can also get it from this website.

This is today's benihana. The photo is from NHK- a Japanese news website. Benihana can still be found in a rare few places, made the traditional way, although it seems that some companies sell a knockoff red "benihana" which is not made with safflowers. It does not turn green.

You see, real benihana is beautiful! Reds and greens against dark hair and autumn clothing is a lovely sight. I wouldn't be able to wait to wear my deep golds, oranges, and August greens if I could afford to wear benihana! I think Autumn would be the perfect season for this colour, with all of the deep browns, pale blues, bright greens and oranges of turning maple... can you see my ambition?

Momiji kanzashi bring out the yellows and reds of the benihana perfectly, don't they? This set was made by the apprentice of one of the last five traditional kanzashi makers in Japan, a great woman with a lot of presence named Kanawa Kuniko. You don't need traditional Nihongami hairstyles to wear her work either- many come in clip or bobby pin form! If you do happen to have a maiko wig, she does also make gorgeous hanakanzashi sets for each month. Please visit - Atelier Kanawa -

The use of benihana has been seen a few times in ukiyo-e (Pictures of the Floating World), most notably perhaps in Eisen Keisai's (1790-1848) work. Many artists focused on the decadence of the red tones, and perhaps the lipstick looked more deeply red when freshly applied between clients or indoors, where lights were dim, but Eisen shows greens in quite a few of his works.

You can see in this painting, a courtesan in her many layers has her face painted with benihana, at least on the lower lip. Above, the upper lip is either natural, or painted with something that isn't benihana. Likely, it is benihana on both upper and lower lip, as the top may not look green as the bottom one does- like in the photo above. It is hard for me to say.

The courtesan has also chosen to wear ohaguro, which is a vile mixture of iron shavings and foul-smelling things used to blacken the teeth in those days. A maiko may still use ohaguro for one day when she makes her transformation from maiko to geiko. Her kimono is covered in momiji (maple) and ume (plum blossoms), with a sayagata pattern and ume hairpins. So, fall/winter season.

You may note the "longer" face of the woman, the larger head in proportion to the tiny hands. Have you seen this style before? I bet you have- Utamaro Kitagawa was a pioneer of this style. His works became popular in the early 1790's, when Eisen was only a child. Surely he took some inspiration from those current paintings of beautiful women!

Utagawa Hiroshige's work was also clearly important to him. Hiroshige and Eisen played off of each others' works for some time. Eisen finished the last of the "Fifty-three Stations of Toukaidou" by Hiroshige, and in turn, Hiroshige finished Eisen's "Sixty-nine Stations of Nakasendou". In any case, Eisen was surely one of the great artists of his time. It's a shame that I can't find any of his works reprinted in my ukiyo-e books!

The last photo does not show the use of benihana very well, but I can assure you it is there. This woman looks to be a geisha, which had become widespread and popular in the late 1700's and early 1800's. This one is "Woman and Autumn Flowers"; in the background, kikyo (Chinese bellflowers) and a bright yellow flower. Her collar is checker-patterned; the juban fabric is asa no ha (hemp) made with shibori technique.

We may not be able to afford real benihana, but it may be able to be faked with some work. Likely, not many people today would recognise it, especially not in America. I am starting with a Nyx lip pencil, one that comes out bright stop-sign red on my lips. Then, I'll layer on a very thin clear or bright red gloss, and dust on Weepinbell. Weepinbell is glittery, but Shiro Cosmetics can sometimes make custom modifications to eyeshadow. Currently, her turnaround time is about two weeks due to hiring new employees and moving her warehouse. If you don't want to wait and have some experience with producing mineral makeup already, check TKB and try the colour recipes they have- or make your own! Dust this on with a brush to get the right effect instead of mixing it in with the lipgloss directly. If you go the TKB route, ensure first that the makeup is lip-safe. Not all minerals are! If anyone does this before I do, let me know and I'd be happy to post pics! <3

No comments:

Post a Comment