Japanese paintings come in a variety of formats, including large screens used to partition a room, hanging scrolls that are displayed against a wall, and bound books and albums. The illustrated handscroll, or emaki, has traditionally been a format that is particularly suited for narrative painting. Like a book, a handscroll is an intimate object that is held in the hands and is ideally viewed by only a few people at a time. Composed of sheets of paper or silk joined horizontally and rolled around a dowel, handscrolls are unfurled one segment at a time, in sections about two feet long.
Reading a handscroll can become an almost cinematic experience as the viewer scrolls through a narrative from right to left, rolling out one segment with his left hand as he re-rolls the right-hand portion. The long, expansive format of the handscroll is especially conducive to the illustration of scene-by-scene detail. Emaki often come in sets, so that a long story can be spread out over several scrolls.
Japanese handscrolls can reach up to forty feet in length, although their dimensions vary; the standard height is approximately one foot, but they may be much larger or smaller. For instance, a type of handscroll called ko-e was particularly popular during the mid-fifteenth to mid-sixteenth century. These small scrolls were about half the standard height, and may have only three or four text passages with accompanying paintings.
Beautifully inscribed with calligraphy and intricately painted, emaki were primarily commissioned by the elite, such as the imperial family, the shogun, or monks from wealthy Buddhist temples. The calligraphy and painting were generally done by official court painters. The text usually precedes the illustration, although in some cases it may be interspersed with the images.
It is believed that the handscroll was invented in India sometime before the fourth century B.C., where it was primarily used for religious texts, and came to China by the first century A.D. The introduction of the handscroll to Japan came several centuries later, as part of the spread of Buddhism from the mainland around the sixth century, along with many other cultural innovations, including the Chinese writing system. The earliest extant illustrated handscroll in Japan is a work showing episodes from the life of the Buddha, and was created in the eighth century.
The Museum’s collection contains a segment of an illustrated Buddhist scripture, The Illustrated Sutra of Past and Present Karma (2012.249) from the Kamakura period (1185–1333) based on eighth-century prototypes. The text on the lower register tells us that Prince Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, has left the palace and traveled to Mount Gaya, where he spends six years practicing asceticism. The painting shows a landscape in India where Siddhartha’s father, the king, is surrounded by his ministers. As the passage relates, the concerned king dispatches his ministers to report on his son’s activities. He also orders the prince’s charioteer to bring Siddhartha 1,000 cartfuls of daily necessities and inform him if he is undergoing any hardships.
Both Buddhism and Japan’s native Shinto religion play a large role in the history of Japanese art. Temples and shrines often commissioned handscrolls depicting the legends of their founding, such as The Illustrated Legends of the Jinoji Temple (1975.268.36), and The Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Shrine (25.224a–e). According to the story inscribed in the Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Shrine, the Heian period poet and scholar Sugawara Michizane (845–903) was falsely accused of treason by the emperor Daigo and died in exile. After his death, a number of disasters befell the capital, and it was believed that Michizane’s spirit was exacting revenge on those who had wronged him. As a result, Michizane was deified as the Shinto god of scholarship and material well-being, and the Kitano Shrine was erected in his honor.
More than thirty illustrated versions of this legend survive, but the Museum’s set is the only one to include a full depiction of the monk Nichizō’s journey to heaven and hell. On this journey, Nichizō encounters the emperor Daigo in the depths of hell, where he is being tormented by flames and blackbirds. Nichizō learns from him how to calm Michizane’s angry spirit, and conveys this information back to the earthly realm.
The Museum’s collection also includes a set of scrolls belonging to an idiosyncratic genre of romantic tales between Buddhist monks and young male acolytes, A Long Tale for an Autumn Night (2002.459.1). The monk Keikai, from the temple on Mount Hiei, fell in love with a young acolyte named Umewaka, who lived at nearby Miidera temple compound. After Umewaka was abducted by a mountain goblin on his way to visit Keikai, the monks at Miidera suspected that Keikai and his fellow monks at Mount Hiei were responsible. This sparked off a huge battle between the two temples. Umewaka managed to escape from the goblins, but upon learning of the destruction wrought by his disappearance, took his own life. As is common in this genre, the story ends with a revelation that the young acolyte was a manifestation of the bodhisattva Kannon, and his sacrifice an expression of Kannon’s compassion.
Handscrolls were also a popular format for the illustration of epic romances, such as the most famous Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji. Written by a Heian court lady named Murasaki Shikibu around the year 1000, it details the many romantic liaisons of the fictional Prince Genji. The Museum has a scroll containing a scene from chapter 14 of this classic tale (1975.268.33), dating from the late fourteenth century. A block of text preceding the illustration explains that we are seeing Prince Genji’s pilgrimage to the Sumiyoshi shrine. On this day, one of Genji’s lovers, the Akashi Lady, also happened to be making her own journey to Sumiyoshi. Unable to meet, the lovers exchange poems.
One intriguing handscroll in the Museum’s collection is the Edo-period (1615–1868) scroll, Tale of a Strange Marriage (57.156.7) by Ukita Ikkei (1795–1859). In this scroll, we can see the preparations and ceremony of a wedding within an aristocratic setting, but instead of the usual courtiers, we find foxes dressed in the elaborate Heian-period attire. A tradition of using anthropomorphized animals in Japanese art stretches back to the famous Frolicking Animals scrolls of the Heian period, a National Treasure of Japan.
Tale of a Strange Marriage is thought to reflect the artist’s criticism of the Tokugawa government’s tactic of marrying an imperial princess to a shogun to reinforce the shogunate’s waning authority. The scroll contains no text, but there is decorated paper between the illustrations that may have been intended for this purpose. However, there was no chance for text to be added because Ikkei was arrested for his subversive views shortly after completing the painting, and soon died.
Spanning a great variety of subject matter, from political commentary to epic romances to religious tales, Japanese illustrated handscrolls bring stories to life in a vivid, engaging manner. These treasured objects, so delicately and diligently painted, allowed readers to immerse themselves deep within the narratives.
Willmann, Anna. “Japanese Illustrated Handscrolls.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jilh/hd_jilh.htm (November 2012)
Brown, Yu-Ying. Japanese Book Illustration. London: British Library, 1988.
McCormick, Melissa. Tosa Mitsunobu and the Small Scroll in Medieval Japan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009.
Poster, Amy G., Richard M. Barnhart, Christine Guth, and John B. Taylor. Crosscurrents: Masterpieces of East Asian Art from New York Private Collections. New York: Japan Society in association with the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1999.