Japanese scroll painting refers to picture scrolls termed emaki or emakimono. Emakis were produced in large numbers in ancient and medieval Japan. The earliest emaki was painted in 735.
Emakis depict widely varied subject matters, including religious, biographical and moral subjects. Most of the emakis are accompanied by text and generally relate a story, such as the origins of a temple. Human figures dominate most of the scrolls.
Emakis are made of silk paper scrolls attached to a wooden dowel. The viewer rolls the scroll by hands as he or she reads the story. The scrolls averaged 35 centimeters in width and 9 to 12 meters in length. Most works were comprised of two or three scrolls, though there were some with 20 scrolls or more. The largest work, the Honen Shonin Eden, has 48 scrolls. Its total length is 521.2 meters.
Some scrolls are divided horizontally, with the text in the lower sections and pictures in the upper section. Other scrolls feature text in special sections on the upper part of the scrolls, and other scrolls alternate the text and pictures, with a picture following a piece of text.
When fashionable, emakis were produced by professional artists, including painters commissioned by the royal court or shrines and temples. Other emakis were also made by humble artists living in the provinces and by many amateur enthusiasts.
The emaki is painted in a unique Japanese style, known as yamato-e. As the emaki developed, the yamato-e style became more complex. Some yamato-e emaki scrolls feature color as their main element, others emphasize lines and some scrolls place equal importance on both color and line.
The emaki picture scroll originated in India and traveled through China to Japan. The emaki was introduced to Japan from China along with Buddhism in the sixth or seventh century. At this point, the Japanese adored Chinese culture and the T'ang court that ruled there. Envoys traveled from Japan to China to study Chinese culture. The Japanese studied T'ang literature and art.
In the middle of the sixth century, Buddhism took firm root in Japan. At first, sutras, the Buddhist scriptural narratives, were imported from China. However, as the demand grew, centers for copying scriptures were established in Japan. The earliest surviving picture scroll was created during this era. The scroll is divided into two sections; the upper section features the illustrations, and the lower section contains the text of the sutra. This picture scroll can be considered a simple sutra with illustrations, but it nevertheless serves as a predecessor of later emakis.
Later, with the waning of the T'ang Empire, the Japanese developed their own style of painting. Previously, the Japanese scholars were compelled to use Chinese characters, but in the 9th and 10th century, the Japanese language became established as its own literary form. Using their own style of painting and their own language, the Japanese produced many emakis in this era.
The decline of the emakis started in the second half of the 14th century, when the knights increasingly struggled against and weakened the Japanese aristocracy. Later scrolls began to show less artistic vitality and began to feature monochrome ink painting, which was more appropriate for the warriors of the Kamakura. The black ink reflected the fighting man's appreciation of spiritual strength and his dislike of anything colorful.
One of the most prominent emakis is the Genji Monogatari (The Tales of Genji), which was written in the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu. It is a romantic novel featuring Prince Genji as its protagonist. Crucial scenes are depicted with illustrations. Only three of the original scrolls remain. Each scene was first made with line drawing, then painted over in bright colors and finally, its lines were redrawn in black ink.
Other noted emakis are The Legends of Shigi-san Temple, The Story of The Courtier Ban Dainagan, The Cartoons of Animals, The Scrolls of Hells, The Scroll of Diseases and Deformities, The History of Kegon, The Legends of Kitano Tenjin Shrine and The Stories of the Heiji Civil War.