Japanese Narrative Art

Japanese narrative art: Early-Spring-Greens-Part-1

The latest exhibition at Museum Rietberg is concerned with Japanese ‘narrative images’ (monogatari-e) in Japanese art. Love, Fight, Feast – The World of Japanese Narrative Art is inspired by some of the greatest scenes found in classical Japanese literature, Buddhist legends, and folktales. The term narrative art denotes all images that accompany or are based on a literary text, either as a sequence of images or as a single illustration that directly or indirectly references a particular tale. Moreover, the term encompasses painting as well as woodblock prints and three-dimensional objects, thus highlighting the breadth of Japanese narrative art, which is distinct from other East Asian cultures.

Japanese Narrative Art

One salient feature of Japanese narrative art is its remarkably wide-ranging subject matter: tales of karmic origins of a deity or place of worship, hagiographies of eminent religious or political figures, romantic stories, warrior epics, and folktales. This rich literary storehouse provided ample material for Japanese artists and craftspeople. The majority of extant narrative illustrations are paintings executed in an array of stylistic modes and materialities, ranging from plain ink to polychrome compositions.

Paintings on handscrolls, fans, albums, books, and folding screens are often embellished with foils or paint in gold and silver. The stories likewise fuelled the imagination of artisans who adapted the iconography for designs on garments, lacquered furniture, containers, and quotidian items made for the elite. One of the most significant features of monogatari-e is the multimedia nature of the works and objects, allowing them to become the stories’ ‘bearers’ and transmitters for future generations.

Introduction of New Printing Technology

The introduction of new printing technology in Japan in the late 16th and early 17th centuries resulted in the dissemination of knowledge and ownership of canonical texts and imagery. Innovative adaptations were created for urban citizens that transposed the high-brow culture of the original tales to popular low-brow expressions. Courtly elegance was thus replaced with down-to-earth humour or coded criticism towards the ruling military regime. The iconography and aesthetic strategies employed in Japanese narrative art were therefore in constant flux. Generations of artists working in different materialities, by adapting the same stories with pictorial and material renditions that appealed to audiences across time and socio-economic backgrounds.

Illuminated Japanese Handscrolls

Among the most impressive works of art are the illuminated handscrolls (emaki), scrolls measuring up to 20 meters in length on which the story unfolds step by step. It is here that the pictorial merges with the narrative, representing continuums of space and time alongside each other. Owing to the dramaturgical development and the constantly changing perspectives that drive the plot each time an image is unrolled or furled, respectively, the classical handscrolls are often compared to contemporary media such as films and manga comics.

At the same time, handscrolls provide a very familiar way of experiencing and telling a story in the sense that the recipients can decide on the pace and flow of the narrative by ‘rewinding or fast-forwarding’ the scroll, as the case may be, thus themselves becoming actors. By connecting different action and time levels, emaki provide for a rich variety of visual experiences as we are accustomed to from modern computer games, for example.

Tales of amorous liaisons between princesses and noblemen, of bitter struggles between rival clans, of evil spirits and gruesome monsters unleashing their fury on humans, and of mythical beasts exist in most cultures – their representation is integral to world art. Yet, rarely do paintings and three- dimensional objects drawing on narratives play such an important role in art and everyday life as in Japan. There, narrative art is considered to be the pinnacle of creative expression. The influence of narrative art is seen even in contemporary genres such as film, manga, and anime, in which traditional motifs and storytelling strategies have been adapted to these new media forms.

The long emaki handscrolls invite viewers to explore and immerse in the pictoral space with shifting perspectives from all sides: first we are in the midst of battle, then we follow the hero to the banks of a river; a view from above into a quiet chamber is disrupted by a monster in the adjoining room; we are guests at a poetry competition between the 12 animals of the East Asian zodiac, our eyes drawn to the spurned racoon dog who, his pride wounded, seeks revenge. The objects have thereby the ability to establish a connection to a literary text despite the abstracted decorative motifs.

The Power of Faith in Japanese Narrative Art

The power of faith in Japanese narrative art is also explored in the exhibition. The act of copying a sacred text (sutra) is one of the main forms of devotional expression in the Buddhist tradition. This pious act not only assists in disseminating the word of the Buddha but also in accumulating spiritual merit, for healing in the present life or for salvation in the next with the assurance that Hell can be avoided, and rebirth achieved. The embellishment of sacred texts with images assisted the faithful in envisioning their devotion. Originally written in India in Sanskrit, these texts were translated into classical Chinese after their arrival in China from the mid-second century onwards.

These texts were later transmitted to Japan in the 8th century, but they were not retranslated into Japanese as Chinese was considered the language of canonical and sacred texts. Engi-e, or ‘pictures of karmic origin’, depict Shinto and Buddhist deities. They also include narratives of high-ranking monks, sacred sites, and Buddhist statues. The calligraphed script alternates with the paintings. Neither script nor painting dominate; instead, they act in concert to complement each other aesthetically.

These engi-e handscrolls had various functions: they might constitute an offering to a divine being, serve as an object of devotion with the hope of protection, or be employed as a legitimizing narrative for the temple/shrine whose history they recount. Illuminated hagiographies (eden) of esteemed monks and founders of Buddhist lineages constitute another significant category of devotional painting. These works follow the same format as engi-e and include a text written in an accessible language alternating with a pictorially rich narrative. They paid homage to a particular individual and were used, for instance, to validate ceremonial purposes. An eden usually begins with the birth of the monk or founder, at times accompanied by accounts of miracles, and conclude with his death.

Classical Japanese Literature

Back to classical literature, the exhibition features works from The Ise Stories, Tale of Genji, and The Tale of the Heike. The text of The Ise Stories (Ise monogatari) is considered one of the most celebrated and beloved works of Japanese classical literature – at once poetic, ingenious, and enigmatic. Belonging to the literary genre known as ‘poem-tales’ (uta monogatari), each of the Ise’s 125 episodes features one or two poems introduced by a short headnote written in prose on the themes of love, friendship (male-male), travel, and courtly elegance.

The text is loosely structured with no continuous story line and it appears that the individual episodes were written by different authors over an extended period. They presented aristocratic personages, portraying events that are partly fictional, partly historical. Some 30 of the 209 poems in the Ise were composed by the courtier-poet Ariwara no Narihira (825–880), who is generally acknowledged as the protagonist and principal author of this tale. Pictorialisations of the 125 episodes may have appeared as early as the early 11th century. Initially, the Ise was composed and read only by the elite in the imperial capital Kyoto (Miyako).

The Kyoto Court

From the 15th century onwards, however, knowledge of courtly culture became accessible to the upper echelons in the provinces as bureaucrats returned from service at the Kyoto court. The second half of the 15th century witnessed a profusion of illuminated hand-copied manuscripts of the Ise. At the same time, artisans began to adapt motifs from select episodes of the Ise as decorative designs for lacquer objects that were often included in the dowry of women due to their associations with cultivation and courtly refinement. Due to the development of printing technology in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, printed versions of the Ise reached an increasingly literate audience. The spread of this courtly tale led to a creative explosion of Ise imagery in prints, paintings, and three-dimensional arts in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) is arguably the world’s first novel and undoubtedly Japan’s most venerated literary achievement. Written in the early 11th century by the imperial court lady Murasaki Shikibu, the 54 chapters of the Genji describe events over more than 70 years that surround the life of Genji, or the Shining Prince. This work is above all a romantic tale presented in several overlapping or parallel narrative sequences and involving some 430 characters, whose actions are driven by love, jealousy, and personal or family ambition. The narrative is set within the rigidly hierarchical Japanese court where men and women’s interactions are determined by stringent systems of ritual, dress, and protocol.

From the time of its conception, the lengthy text of the Genji was much praised for the literary quality of its prose and for the sophistication of its 795 poems that are integrated into the narrative flow. This impressive work served as a rich source of inspiration and reference for poets. The characters in the story were promoted as paragons of elegance and grace, their refined behaviour representing models to be emulated. Over time, this work came to embody the culture of the aristocratic Heian period (794– 1185), and knowledge of this courtly tale eventually circulated among all levels of society.

The Tale of the Heike

The final famous classic, the Tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari) is considered the third most significant work of Japanese classic literature after The Ise Stories and The Tale of Genji. Composed of 12 ‘books’ subdivided into thirty-six independent episodes, this medieval war tale (gunkimono) recounts the vicissitudes of the Taira (Heike) house and their bitter rivalry with the Minamoto (Genji) that culminated in the Genpei War of 1180-1185.

The origins of the Heike are obscure, as it has no single identifiable author – it was created over time by a number of anonymous storytellers known as biwa hoshi. These performers were mostly blind Buddhist lay monks, who travelled around the country reciting the sorrowful stories of warriors and their struggle for power during the Genpei War to the accompaniment of the biwa, a type of lute.

The Heike provided an abundant source of text and imagery for generations of painters, playwrights, and authors. The oldest surviving Heike imagery is datable to the 16th century. The greatest production of paintings drawn from the tale, however, occurred in the 17th century when many works were commissioned by members of the new military elite of the ruling Tokugawa family.

Another type of Heike-related paintings are mai no hon, illustrated libretti for dance and recitation performances accompanied by a drum that are known as a kowakamai (ballad dramas). From the late 18th century onwards, Heike imagery was further disseminated through the adaptations of the story in the popular kabuki and puppet (bunraku) theatres and in the visual vocabulary of woodblock-printed books (ehon), independent sheets, and series, as well as in the decoration of accessories for men.

Other Types of Japanese Literature – The Drunken Ogre

In another type of literature, supernatural beings are key characters in many of Japan’s popular narratives. The fascination, attraction, and fear of potentially threatening creatures is not unique to Japan, but there the tradition is brimming with lively creatures that possess preternatural energies, imaginative appearances, and frequently menacing or destructive powers. In their textual as well as pictorial representations, however, these invented beings are never devoid of political, religious – and at times – bellicose agendas.

A celebrated example is the tale The Drunken Ogre (Shuten Doji). This tale centres on a boy who turns into an enormous ogre after drinking too much saké. He abducts court ladies from the imperial capital and takes them to his lair in the mountains where he drinks their blood and eats their flesh. The emperor commissions the legendary warrior Minamoto no Yorimitsu (Raiko) to kill Shuten Doji. Assisted by his loyal retainers, the ‘Four Heavenly Kings’, and protected by Japanese deities, Raiko ultimately destroys the demon and his large retinue. The Shuten Doji narrative was so popular that it continued to be recreated and reinterpreted in various literary and visual forms.

Imagining China

Another section of the exhibition looks at the genre of ‘Imagining China’. Virtually all cultural, administrative, and devotional aspects of historical Japanese culture originated on mainland China, or Chugoku (The Middle Kingdom). Transmitted and filtered through today’s Korean Peninsula, new technologies and materialities, as well as narrative and belief systems, were adapted to accommodate local traditions and tastes.

From the 7th to the mid-9th century, monks, students, and imperial embassies were sent to Tang-dynasty China (618-907) to learn about Buddhism, bureaucratic organisations, architecture and city planning, textiles and costumes, and, importantly, the writing system. Together with the script, various narrative styles were transmitted from the mainland to Japan. Most prominent were illuminated Buddhist scriptures and the lives of venerated monks that were recounted in text and illustrated on handscrolls.

Until the early 1870s, scenes from beyond Japanese shores were shown in a Chinese mode known as kara-e (Tang-style painting), whether they were set on the Korean Peninsula, China, the Indian subcontinent, or even in otherworldly realms such as that beneath the sea inhabited by the Dragon Kings. Another method of adapting Chinese precedents is through the illumination of Chinese narratives, such as the 9th-century ballad The Song of Lasting Sorrow (Chogonka), or tales of virtuous, legendary Chinese emperors.

An imaginary China also served as a backdrop in vernacular narratives. Of them, the tale of The Great Woven Cap (Taishokan) was particularly popular in diverse performative genres. Appearing in scribal and pictorial materialities from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, this narrative celebrates China as an authoritative country of riches. But the story also contains an implicit power struggle that is played out between Japan and China. Ultimately, the Japanese are successful in acquiring and possessing a ‘priceless jewel’, here understood as an enduring symbol of the Buddhist tradition in Japan.

Anthropomorphised Animals in Japanese Narrative Art

In another section, food culture, anthropomorphised animals, and household objects provide inspiration for the fantastical subjects in the four handscrolls on show. Animals are engaged in social activities well known to the wealthy elite of this time, including the composition of poetry and attendance at festive banquets, or in battles that recall the period’s political instability.

Many of the elements pictured are drawn from actual life in the Muromachi period (1336-1573), when the prototypes of these works were first created. Details such as clothing, domestic architecture, furniture, accessories, and dishes are rendered with such documentary precision that they serve as valuable references to the material culture of this era. Much of the humour in these paintings lay in the fact that the settings, accoutrements, and activities portrayed are familiar to viewers, but all the figures are animals or animated objects.

The texts in these examples belong to the literary category known as iruimono, literally ‘other kind pieces’. These short tales, which feature non-humans, flourished between the 14th and 17th centuries. At this time, the spread of animist beliefs throughout East Asia; the development in certain Buddhist traditions that all beings, including plants and animals, can become a Buddha; and the taste for fantastic topics might account in part for the popularity of these works. The most significant factor contributing to their success, however, was the love of word games, which permeate the literary texts and equally inform the paintings.

The diversity of Japanese narrative art – its styles, materialities, and themes – feeds our continuing fascination with this pictorial tradition that narrates tales of faith, infatuation, rivalry, longing, atonement, and indulgence. The great pictorial narratives and narrative images are proofs for a profound, clear-eyed perspective on human existence in this world, a perspective that has lost none of its pertinence for us today.

Narrative Images, until 5 December, Museum Rietberg, Zurich, rietberg.ch. A complementary exhibition, Manga: Reading the Flow, runs until 31 January, 2022