Thursday, December 8, 2011

Japanese Art Tells Amazing Stories

Japan has a beautiful and interesting culture. In fact, the artwork of Japan's well established culture is an incredible endeavor to tell its profoundest stories through painted picture. One of the richest periods for this kind of art occurred between the 12th and 19th centuries. The Japanese painted artwork is a tremendous cultural heritage to be appreciated by anyone who seeks to understand East Asian history better. Japanese narrative illustrations have become popular in a variety of formats. These would include hand scrolls, albums, books, hanging scrolls, and screens. However, the format in particular which has been the most noticeable vehicle for the illustration of theses narratives is the hand scroll. It is called "emaki." Practically speaking, this means that the story proceeds in sequence from right to left. Granted, this technique gives a different flow to the story from what most western observers are accustomed to.
There exist two types of illustrations in the hand scroll tradition: episodic and continuous. In the episodic style of scroll small rectangular frames are divided up and defined by inscribed text. This type is demonstrated by the "Illustrated Sutra of the Miracles of Kannon." In the famous "Tale of Genji" the episodic flow of the picture narratives are interrupted and blocked by the consistent insertions of text. This is in contrast to the second style called continuous. This second style presents an uninterrupted flow of narrative pictures. An example of the continuous type would be the "Legend of Mount Shigi."
It is interesting that Buddhist devotees paid attention to oral teachings by the historical Buddha himself. The actual teachings which were recorded in written form are known as "sutras." These sutras took the form of dialogues between the Buddha and his disciples. One of the earliest sutras is called "Lotus Sutra." The seeds of Buddhist influence are quite evident in this classic work. The popularity of this collection relies in part on their compelling teaching through the tool of "episode." They are really a lot like short tales. In addition to the Buddhist sutra, there are many hand scrolls in the form of illustrated stories which address the subject of the origin and miracles of Shinto shrines. In fact, many followers of both faiths believe there is an intimately close relationship between Buddhism and Shinto. A classic work that relates stories of the Shinto shrines is called "Legend of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine."
It almost goes without saying that the creation of stories like these which explain through illustration gave life to the further propagation of various religious sects in Japan. One could draw the conclusion that this spread is a validation of Buddhist and Shinto syncretism. Therefore, the artwork of Japan does tell amazing stories about life in the past. It has been said that a single picture is more potent than a thousand words. If this is true, then the painted stories of Japan are indeed a national treasure to be deeply appreciated.