Arts & Culture

Vivid scrolls from Japan tell timeless stories

5 min read

Medieval Japan comes to colorful life in ko-e, miniature hand scrolls

For nearly a decade, Melissa McCormick, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities, has been absorbed in the study of elaborate works of fiction. The themes she encounters — love, temptation, even family drama — are timeless. The format — narrow horizontal scrolls of mulberry paper, with hand-painted images and columns of calligraphy — places her project squarely in late medieval Japan.

The horizontal picture scroll, or emaki, was the most prestigious form of literature in Japan during the premodern era. Such scrolls, which typically measured about 30 centimeters in height, were unrolled and read from right to left. Complete examples survive from as early as the 12th century.

In the mid-15th century, a smaller format of scrolls emerged in Japanese culture. Known as ko-e, they measured just half the height of traditional hand scrolls. Though ko-e mark a key development in the history of Japanese art and visual culture, they have not garnered much scholarly attention.

This spring, McCormick brings ko-e into the spotlight with a new, beautifully illustrated book titled “Tosa Mitsunobu and the Small Scroll in Medieval Japan” (University of Washington Press). Her work, the first book-length study devoted exclusively to small scrolls, reveals the history of the genre, its cultural context, and the pictorial qualities that set ko-e apart from traditional hand scrolls. In particular, McCormick argues that the format offered viewers an intimate reading experience closely associated with modern notions of literature.

McCormick’s study is focused on the works of Tosa Mitsunobu, an imperial court painter (active circa 1469-1522) and the courtier-scholar Sanjonishi Sanetaka (1455-1537).

“Because the scrolls are diminutive and because the stories are brief, scholars assumed that ko-e were ‘children’s literature,’ in a pejorative sense,” says McCormick. “But these are sophisticated and elaborate works of art, created for significant figures at the highest level of Japanese aristocracy.”

The city of Kyoto was the center of ko-e production. Aristocrats commissioned the elaborate scrolls, selecting the finest authors and the most accomplished artists to write and illustrate the stories. Rare pigments and other precious materials were often used.

“Patronage of the scrolls reflected a desire among Kyoto aristocrats to serve as dynamic curators of the court’s cultural heritage,” McCormick says. “Many aristocrats took a proactive role in commissioning stories, offering their own libraries as references for the artists. It is fascinating to find traces of a patron’s sensibility in a scroll.”

McCormick explains that although ko-e could be made for many different types of audiences — young and old, male and female — most were produced with a specific reader in mind. Recovering the identities and historical contexts of these readers represents an important component of her research.

Most ko-e are short stories that can be read in a single sitting. Many examples focus on an individual protagonist and have a single plotline, often based on a tale of personal transformation.

“Ko-e are deceptively simple because they tend to follow the same pattern. Typically the protagonist comes to a realization about him or herself by the end of the tale,” McCormick says. “That awareness is often related to Buddhist principles, in particular the illusory quality of earthly desires. But a great deal of literary tradition is folded into this basic template in allusive and subtle ways.”

The pictures of ko-e, like most Japanese scrolls, were predicated on the idea that the painting surface would constantly be unscrolled leftward.

“The horizontality and perpetual motion of hand scrolls engendered an array of unique pictorial techniques that assumed a continuously unfurling visual field. Small-format scrolls further refined and distilled these techniques, and in many cases conceived of new forms of pictorial representation better suited to the small scale of ko-e and the rich, allusive nature of their stories,” says McCormick. “They were not just miniature versions of larger scrolls, but a new genre that invited a different kind of engagement from the viewer.”

In McCormick’s view, works by the painter Mitsunobu represent some of Kyoto’s finest ko-e.

“He was head of the official Painting Bureau and the leading artist of classical imagery in his generation,” she says.

Mitsunobu collaborated for several decades with the courtier Sanjonishi Sanetaka, a leading literary scholar and calligrapher. Their partnership, McCormick argues, was essential to the development of the new format.

Sanetaka’s diary, which he wrote in faithfully every day for more than 60 years, provides detailed information about their collaboration and the effort required to complete a scroll.

“The diary is an excellent resource for exploring the cultural and artistic life of late medieval Kyoto,” McCormick says. “It also provides rare insight into the contingencies of painting production by a court artist 500 years ago.”

Together, Mitsunobu and Sanetaka collaborated on a dozen painting projects. McCormick surveys many of these in her book, singling out three particularly revealing small-format scrolls for detailed literary and pictorial analysis. “A Wakeful Sleep,” for example, recounts the tale of a woman who falls in love with a man she has met only in dreams. She goes to a temple, miraculously discovers him there and they are united.

“Many of these tales appear straightforwardly didactic,” says McCormick. “But close readings bring out countless idiosyncracies and even elements subversive of their own message. In doing so, they speak to the complexity of social customs and religious influences that pervaded Kyoto in the late 15th century. I hope the book will bring the visuality and color of medieval Japan to life for the reader.”