The Three Great Mysteries of Japan’s Art World

A Japanese art critic once wrote: “If in the midst of (painting), a sword-cut had severed the brush, it would have bled.” From this we gather that to the Japanese artist, creating art was something vital, something religious. This force has inspired artists of all nationalities, throughout history, but today we look at Japanese art of the Edo period – and how the obsession of cerrtain artists created not only great beauty, but enduring mystery.

Time-Traveling Artist paints the Sky Tree 180 years before it exists

In 2012, the Sky Tree opened in Azumabashi, in northeast Tokyo, near the traditional downtown area of Asakusa, to flocks of tourists waiting to ride its elevators. The Sky Tree is a broadcasting and telecommunications tower 634m high, with a shopping mall at its base and a highly popular observation deck near the top. It is currently the tallest tower in the world, and the second tallest man-made structure after the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai.

But if it was built in the 21st century … how can it be seen in a picture painted in 1831?

One of the creations of the ukiyo-e, (woodblock print) artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi holds a mysterious structure whose silhouette is very similar to the Tokyo Sky Tree. The work titled Toto Mitsumata no Zu (View of Tokyo’s Mitsumata) was painted in 1831 … and it was painted as a view of the very same location in what is now Azumabashi, where the tower presently stands.

The Edo Shogunate (Japan’s fuedal military government) had banned buildings higher than Edo Castle, (58m) so such a towering structure is a huge anachronism. Some theories have been put forward, suggesting it could have been a fire watch tower (which is possible, but not at that scale) or a tower to drill for oil. Perhaps the most credible theory is that it is a drilling project for hot springs – the onsen, thermally active waters prized for their therapeutic properties. Even so, the size of the structure does not fit with anything of that time period.

The Mysterious Appearance and Disappearance of Toshusai Sharaku

In the spring of 1794, Edo’s art world was startled by a series of ukiyo-e prints released by the art agent and publisher Tsutaya Juzaburo. The painting were all portraits of contemporary actors in their various roles (released in four batches corresponding to the seasonal openings of the kabuki theaters ) along with a few sumo wrestlers and memorial prints.

What disturbed the public was the raw emotional intensity of the portraits; they had been painted in a technique that conveyed the essence of the individual depicted.

Over the space of one year, 146 such prints were published, under the name of the artist Toshusai Sharaku.

But according to historical records, no such individual existed.

Nobody in Edo knew anyone who had any personal contact with an artist called Sharaku. Nobody where he lived, where he came from, or how he was able to create such ground-breaking paintings. Tsutaya claimed the paintings were delivered by a messenger, and that he had never met the artist in person.

After one year of intense activity, the stream of portraits stopped, and did not resume. Sharaku had suddenly appeared in the art world as a fully matured artist, and vanished just as quickly.

A number of theories have attempted to explain the mystery. Some claim that he was an already established artist, working (for some unknown reason) under a false name. Some claim that “Sharaku” was the collective name used by a group of artists working together in secret. Some say that it was Tsutaya Juzaburo himself – but Tsutaya only sold art, he had never shown any sign of painting ability himself.

The true identity of Sharaku, and the nature of his painting techniques, remains a mystery to this day.

The Haunted Scroll of Korin-ji Temple

(ABOVE: An example of a kakemono.)

In the little-known Temple of Korin-ji, northwest of Kyoto, there hangs a kakejiku (or kekemono) – an illustrated scroll – which was the inspiration of a macabre local legend.

The artist known as Tenko lived in the countryside outside of Kyoto with his beautiful niece, Kimi, and his apprentice, Sawara. It was not long before the two young people started a torrid, secret love affair; but Sawara loved the pursuit of art itself more than he loved Kimi. The girl asked Sawara to marry her, but he told her to wait until he had established himself as a professional artist. To that end, Sawara left the household, and went to continue his studies under a celebrated painter named Myokei.

What followed was a tragic series of miscommunications that made Kimi believe that Sawara had forgotten her, and was about to marry someone else. She ran away from the household and was not seen again for many years – and when she suddenly reappeared in Sawara’s life, she found that he had given up his search for her in despair, and had married someone else.

In a frenzy of grief she killed herself, and the heartbroken Sawara painted a kakejiku – a hanging scroll of Kimi – in her memory.

That very night, Sawara was awoken by a ghostly presence in his room. The picture in the scroll had come to life, and the painted Kimi was now standing over his futon, watching him. Night after night, the pathetic ghost stepped out of the scroll, and kept the sleepless Sawara company. When he could endure it no more Sawara donated the scroll to the nearby Korin-ji Temple, begging the priests to pray for her to find peace. Sawara then relinquished his marriage, shaved his head and became a monk at a different temple, using his artistic talents only to celebrate the compassion of Lord Buddha.

One of these mysteries drives the plot of “Voice of the Mirror” – Book 2 of the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” Science Fantasy time-travel saga! You can find out which one by picking up Book One, “Voice of the Sword”, right here …

or diving into the whole trilogy in the Omnibus Box Set!

EXCALIBUR … the cutting edge of new fiction!



About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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