Japanese Battle Screen

By Burell, Jane | School Arts, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Japanese Battle Screen


Burell, Jane, School Arts


This folding screen is one of a pair (Battles of Yashima and Dannoura are not shown) that depicts three battles that took place during the Gempei Wars (1180-1185), the final conflict between two rival clans for control of medieval Japan. In 1185 the Minamoto clan defeated the Taira clan in a dramatic sea battle fought at Dannoura. The Minamoto clan established their military rule of Japan with the emperor bestowing the title of Shogun (Barbarian-Subduing Supreme General) on Minamoto no Yoriomo in 1192. Successive Shogun would rule Japan until the end of the Edo period (1615-1868).

Battle Screens

Minstrels (musical entertainers) passed down stories about the conflicts between the Taira and Minamoto clans before they were depicted in works of art. Battle screens glorifying the past were popular during the Edo period when this work was created. Heroic acts as well as significant episodes in the wars are depicted with vivid realism. Because the events were familiar to members of Edo-period society, they did not have to be illustrated in minute detail or in chronological order. Events were arranged for their dramatic impact. The overall effect is decorative with gold clouds used to separate events as the narrative unfolds across the screen.

The style of this screen is in keeping with a popular Edo period tradition of showing panoramic views of the city of Kyoto. A bird's-eye view is used to enhance the panoramic effect. Notice that many of the roofs are removed from the buildings to enable the viewer to observe the action taking place inside. A samurai (military lord) or a member of the merchant class may have commissioned these screens to glorify Japan's past and associate prior military accomplishments with the current age.

Kano School of Painting

The Kano School, the tradition to which this screen belongs, is named for the ink painter Kano Masanobu (1434-1530). He was the first in a lineage of official painters to the shogunal government that lasted until the end of the Edo period in 1868.

Prior to Kano Masanobu, ink painting had been practiced largely in monasteries adhering to the ideals of Zen Buddhism, which advocated meditation and self-discipline. Because the Kano painters were not followers of Zen Buddhism, their ink paintings did not focus on religious subjects and were more decorative in style.

By the Edo period (1615-1868) Kano painters worked in a range of styles including decorative, narrative subjects like this pair of screens. They would have been painted by a number of artists employed in the workshop of the head of the Kano School during the mid-seventeenth century.

Japanese Screens

There are two types of Japanese screens, fusuma (sliding doors) and byobu (freestanding screens). Both types have been important forms of interior decoration in Japan since the fifteenth century. This battle screen is a byobu. It would have been used to divide a room for specific occasions or as part of the interior decoration. Screens were also placed behind important people to provide suitable surroundings for them.

A screen is usually made of six panels and then paired with another screen to form twelve panels. Each panel is individually hinged approximately every two feet (notice the lines that occur in the illustration) so the screen could be folded up like an accordion and stored until it was needed again. Although the screen is shown flat in the photograph, it would have been displayed slightly folded to enable it to stand freely. Folding screens were changed to complement the occasion or season.

Battle of Ichinotani

The Taira forces in Settsu, south of Kyoto, set up their defensive camp at Ichinotani, which was protected by mountains to the north, the woods of Ikuta to the east and the sea to the south. …

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