[From February Issue 2010]
“Sentou” public bathhouses have a history of more than 400 years. These bathhouses had been used by most people until the late 1970s when bathrooms became common in ordinary houses. A conventional sentou has separate doors leading into the ladies’ or men’s changing rooms, a bandai from where the sentou is watched-over and yusen (bathing fee) is paid, and conversations are carried out over the wall, only a few meters high, dividing the ladies’ bathing area and the men’s.
It is said that the culture of painting scenery on the bathing area wall began in 1912, when the gengou (name of the Emperor’s reigning era) changed from Meiji to Taisho. The owner of Kikaiyu bathhouse in Chiyoda Ward asked a painter to do the job. The painter was from Shizuoka Prefecture and loved Mt. Fuji, and thus the mainstream image painted on sentou walls became Mt. Fuji.
In 1935, MARUYAMA Kiyoto was born in Suginami Ward, Tokyo. He currently is one of the only two remaining sentou scenery painters in Tokyo. Maruyama, still an active painter at 74 years old, has been painting since he was 18, when he started working at a relative’s advertising agency and scenic advertising company. Upon request, he will visit any part of the country to paint landscapes such as Mt. Fuji, Ashinoko Lake and the Seto Inland Sea.
“I was very good at drawing from a young age. During my evacuation in the war to Yamanashi Prefecture in elementary school and middle school, the watch out for fire disaster prevention poster I drew won a contest,” Maruyama reminisces. “I was taking Japanese calligraphy lessons then, and later I became a scenery painter and had to write letters on billboards, so those skills paid off.”
Maruyama decided to become a professional scenic painter and took apprenticeship under his master MARUYAMA Kikuo, who was the president of his company. Kikuo was the cousin of Kiyoto’s father, who worked as the sales representative. “He didn’t take extra care in teaching me, so I watched and stole all the skills from him. Work was demanding every day; Besides bathhouse scenery, I even had to write advertisement words on department store shutters and truck bodies.”
“Originally, advertisement agencies would draw scenic paintings free of charge in exchange for free wall advertisement space. Its own scenic artists would draw the pictures. Post cards were useful references, but the rest of the ideas were all in the head. Looking back, it was a very generous age,” says Maruyama.
Soon scenic art became a business in its own right. Maruyama became independent at the age of 45. Once he gets a request over the phone, he loads his work tools – paint, brushes, rollers and ladder – into his van and drives himself to the painting site. It takes approximately an hour and a half just to prepare as he sets up scaffolding and spreads sheets of plastic so the bathing area will stay clean.
The painting process is a work against time. Sentou open from 3 or 4p.m. Maruyama gets to the site by 7a.m., and once he is set up, he starts drafting with chalk. “Gradation is the very essence of scenic art,” Maruyama states. He places the seven colors on his handmade pallet and mixes them to create the subtle shades. He used paintbrushes before, but now uses rollers to directly put paint on the wall.
Every year, more and more sentous disappear. Scenic artists are losing jobs fast, and the few dozen scenic artists that existed in Tokyo in its golden age have been reduced to just two – the other is his fellow apprentice, NAKAJIMA Morio. But with the help of the recent Showa era boom, plus his appearance in different media, new job opportunities have presented themselves from unexpected directions.
“After a TV interview, there was a rush of phone calls from people asking me to paint on their bathroom walls.” Moreover, with the graying society, there has been an increase in opportunities to paint bathing rooms at rural retirement homes and care centers over the past five or six years. “Other than that, I have more activities to attend to apart from painting, such as appearing in talk shows at events, or holding exhibitions of my work,” he says.
There are more than 10,000 scenic art pieces that Maruyama has painted. A sentou wall is typically around 13 meters wide, with the height ranging from five to 10 meters. Working with these “big canvases” is an occupation that calls for tough physical labor on one hand and delicate technique on the other, but he is satisfied with a job that he can continue at an older age. “I feel a calling in the job. It is unfortunate that sentous are decreasing in number and I have no heir,” Maruyama says, smiling.
Photo provided by Maruyama Kogei, MARUYAMA Kiyoto: