Emaki: The Magic Scrolls of Japan

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Emaki: The Magic Scrolls of Japan


Stern, Fred, The World and I


Emaki painting is an ancient Japanese art. It is a way of blending finely crafted art and text to tell a story, in much the same tradition as beautifully illustrated books, but in a different format: a horizontal picture scroll. Emaki hand scrolls may illustrate an aspect of Japan's history, its mythology, even a fairy tale.

Picture scrolls did not originate in Japan, however. In ancient Egypt papyrus was often worked into scrolls, some of which survive to this day. The Hebrews committed their sacred work, the Torah, to scrolls which are still used in religious services. Horizontal scrolls were also fairly common during the middle ages.

The hand scroll concept in Asia originated in China, and Japan adopted and refined it over a period of century. In this endeavor they were greatly aided by the development of "kana," a simplified version of their lettering which could create a script that was more easily read and lent itself to the artistic feeling of the scroll. During the period of around 1100 to 1600 AD, the creation of emakis was perfected and the art form reached its height.

The first emakis illustrated the teachings of Buddha. They were created by Buddhist monks throughout Japan. Those who practiced Shintoism, Japan's other primary religion, also used the emaki to spread Shinto doctrine.

The most commonly produced Japanese emakis were about one foot high and varied in lengths of up to 40 feet. Often a story line would require 3 or 4 scrolls to come to completion.

Emakis are read by a single reader seated on the floor in front of the scroll which is unfolded from right to left. The reader proceeds at his own speed absorbing the story as it unfolds. Usually illustrations are in color with the text carefully arranged to best artistic advantage, highlighting both the illustrations and the beauty of the script itself. However, sometimes an emaki will consist of a series of line drawings which are then accompanied by descriptive texts.

Emaki are typically characterized as being "male" or "female." The male emaki usually tells a biographical or historical story, or are description s of the natural world, in short the emaki version of "nonfiction". On the other hand, the female emaki typically captures the gist of a novel, ie "fiction."

Overall, the emaki clearly demonstrated the Japanese love of ornamentation, jewelry, and grace, and an affectionate regard for nature, especially landscape features such as mountains, and plant and animal life. We can also recognize the Japanese propensity for melancholy.

East Versus West

Typically emakis artists took liberties with the architectural rendering of buildings. This had a practical purpose, allowing the artist to show groups of individuals in an illustration and to compensate for the short emaki height-- remember, these scrolls were on average only about 12 inches high. Perspective as presented by Western artists was non-existent.

In addition to altering the size of landscape structures and their relation to figures, the emaki artist took liberties in representing the sizes of the figures themselves. Leading characters were often larger than those of subsidiary figures, despite the fact that a realistic representation would have had them of similar stature. Often these enhanced images were repeated in panel after panel in order to establish and reinforce identity and rank.

Emaki art also differs from Western art in the details of people's features. When you look closely at an emaki you will note that the faces of those portrayed, aristocrat and commoner alike, are usually ill defined creating a mask-like effect. In sharp contrast the clothes of courtiers and especially their head gear are always carefully delineated.

Important Emakis

One of the best loved emakis is "The Tale of Genji" a romantic tale of a princely hero at the court of the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto. …

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