Japanese illustrated scrolls 絵巻物
From sutras to satire
Words and images cover meters of paper, turned brown by time. Brush strokes flow, skilfully depicting text and images. Incredible illustrations are presented, and tell a story from another time...
The course of history
The key literary and artistic production of ancient Japan, emaki (picture scrolls) at first seem to be a somewhat esoteric subject. They are typically composed of a cylindrical wooden center, with sheets of paper glued together and wrapped around the centerpiece to form a compact cylinder, protected with a fabric cover and held closed with a silk cord.
This style of scroll entered Japan in the 8th century, coming directly from China. First dedicated to Buddhist scriptures (sutras), the scrolls were carriers of a strong religious symbolism, and considered to be magical items. The people who worshiped them as artifacts thought they could save them from misfortunes or perform miracles if read with enough vigor. But from the twelfth century, emaki had its golden age, becoming more diversified at astonishing speed, not confining themselves only to religious depictions. Not an easy read, romance novels like The Tale of Genji, stories of warriors or more humorous tales... all shown on yards of rolled up paper. In all cases, the calligraphy and the illustrations were not done by the same masters, each one specialized in a specific art. Affixing the sheets around the roller was the final stage in this difficult work.
Bringing paper to life
The reading of an illustrated scroll is from right to left, following the items with your eyes in a geographic and chronological order. The more you look, the more time passes and places change. The same characters are featured as many times as needed for readers to understand the evolution of their actions. The works can have varied storylines: The scroll of the Tale of Genji (Genjimonogatari emaki) shows characters with fixed lines and loose clothing forming sharp angles. Conversely, the scroll of the epic story of Mount Shigi (Shigi-san engi emaki) depicts caricatures and humorous features, and is incredibly expressive. To give a final example, in Animals (Choju-giga), character features are naive and delicate to represent a social satire in animal form.
A playful yet masterful art medium, emaki convey a message to the curious reader, often using moderation for surprising humor! Far from the academic artistic criteria inherited from Western culture, they are a form of visual entertainment that's really amazing. Go and admire works in a museum and start trying to decipher the story, which will help you understand the history of these illustrations, a fun activity for young and old alike!