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Tosa Mitsunobu and the Small Scroll in Medieval Japan by Melissa McCormick (review)

From: Monumenta Nipponica
Volume 67, Number 2, 2012
pp. 329-334 | 10.1353/mni.2012.0023

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One traditional characteristic of Japanese culture is a love of small objects and of items so fragile they look as if they might crumble to the touch. This aesthetic sensibility was particularly prized in Heian court society, as evidenced by the kana lettering inscribed in the booklets of the period and on other objects as well. Picture scrolls (emaki) are another example of this aesthetic. These diminutive objects, which unroll horizontally, are gener­ally around 30 centimeters tall-although some, such as Genji Monogatari emaki (The Tale of Genji Scrolls), are even smaller: at 24 centimeters, the entire scroll, when closed, can fit into the hand of an adult. And the small scrolls (ko-e) that are the subject of the book under review and a subcategory of emaki stand at barely 15 centimeters-small enough to fit into the hand of a child.

Small scrolls feature stories that are short and easy to follow, from love stories to didactic tales and stories of Buddhist miracles and the supernatural. Each contains just one sto­ry, comprising at most four or five sections. It is unclear whether or not they are unique to Japan, but they are not known to exist elsewhere in East Asia. Also uncertain is when the small scrolls first began to be produced in Japan. There are several examples from the Kamakura period and more from the Muromachi period, though they account for only a small portion of all emaki dating from that period. The "small pictures" (ko-e) mentioned in Muromachi-period documents are actually references to "small picture scrolls," and judging from the frequent mentions of ko-e in the diaries of aristocrats of the period, it appears that the scrolls were recognized as a distinct genre. They proliferated around the time of Tosa Mitsunobu and, naturally, reflect the ideas and social mores of that period.

Literary studies of the small scrolls by scholars in Japan are too numerous to mention, but very little research has been conducted from the perspective of art history-and what little exists can only be classed as introductory commentary. This is partly due to a deep-rooted prejudice against the small scroll format, which is generally seen as a reduction and simplification of the "real thing" and as an item that was popularized during the Muromachi period, when regard for the classical elegance of picture scrolls was diminishing. Umezu Jirō, the leading authority on emaki, is one scholar who has drawn attention to the unique characteristics of the small scrolls, in his short essay taking up Suzuriwari sōshi (Breaking the Inkstone). With a further study by Tanikawa Yuki linking the small scroll to Tosa Mitsunobu's individual style, this artistic and literary genre has at last become the subject of serious scholarship.

It is against this backdrop that Melissa McCormick, a Western scholar, undertook her research into small scrolls and the special nature of their texts and pictures, pursuing their individual meaning from a fresh perspective. McCormick is an art historian specializing in Muromachi-period yamato-e and the Tosa school of court artists representative of that style. She is known for her solid research, which has included reading original medieval docu­ments that are challenging even for Japanese researchers in order to investigate the histori­cal background of the artworks she is studying. She has made a major contribution to the field, outshining even her Japanese counterparts with her articles written in Japanese.

Tosa Mitsunobu and the Small Scroll in Medieval Japan is based on McCormick's Ph.D. dissertation at Princeton University. The book's novelty lies in its treatment of small scrolls as a serious subject, and the study goes beyond anything thus far attempted by Japanese scholars. McCormick has demonstrated tremendous originality in interpreting the back­ground to each individual work, and her writing brims with the spirit of an author breaking new territory.

McCormick begins the volume with an introduction to Japanese picture scrolls, in partic­ular those with accompanying narrative. Chapter 1 then provides a history of small scrolls. In these opening chapters, the reader can already begin to get a glimpse of the author's unique perspective. McCormick points out that...


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