New Year 2017
To greet the New Year I have selected a netsuke of Zendama, the good spirit first introduced by the popular writer Santo Kyoden in his illustrated book Shingaku Hayasomegusa (Fast-dyeing mind technique) in 1790. The author and illustrator, a man of the despised merchant class, can arguably be credited as the artist who introduced the quintessentially Japanese tradition of manga.
In those days the political hierarchy ensured a well-controlled society in which everyone knew his place by strictly monitoring popular culture, imposing heavy punishments on anyone whose output might inspire dissent. Santo Kyoden learnt to his cost that some lines were not to be crossed, and was sentenced to being handcuffed and placed under house arrest for 50 days, for a racy publication early in his career. Thereafter his publications bore strong moral messages, though of course subversion simmered healthily under the surface of his work.
Zendama and his nemesis, the evil spirit Akudama, proved popular characters throughout the 19th century. Their likenesses appeared with some frequency in woodblock prints and as a kabuki dance, but only Kokusai seems to have used them as inspiration for his netsuke. Perhaps their owners commissioned them as talismans in an uncertain world. We certainly live in uncertain times now, but such netsuke are scarce, with only a few lucky collectors able to boast their addition to their collections.
An interesting inro by Koryusai, from an old English collection, depicts the unusual scene of a warrior wearing a courtier’s headgear and playing a sho (a type of reed instrument) framed against the background of a mountain.
The tale of this subject matter is that of Minamoto no Yoshimitsu, younger brother of Yoshiyiie, who was taught a particularly beautiful secret melody on the sho by the celebrated master Toyohara Tokimoto. Leaving to join his brother in battle in the far north, Yoshimitsu grew afraid that he might be slain and that the tune would be lost forever. He thus resolved to take Tokimoto’s son, Tokiaki, part of the way on his journey and to teach him the tune by moonlight. This scene is depicted in woodblock prints (such as the example below by Yoshitoshi), the renowned warrior, seated before Mount Ashigara by moonlight and playing the courtly instrument. In Japanese aesthetics it is considered a depiction of a perfect warrior.