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Reviewed by:
  • Tosa Mitsunobu and the Small Scroll in Medieval Japan
  • Melanie Trede
Tosa Mitsunobu and the Small Scroll in Medieval Japan by Melissa Mccormick. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009. Pp. xii + 292. $75.00.

The materiality, and especially the size, of illuminated handscrolls created in late fifteenth-century Japan, along with the social network that created them, are the stuff of the book under review. Melissa McCormick focuses her exquisite study on the three “short-story small scrolls” firmly attributable to the elusive court painter Tosa Mitsunobu (active ca. 1469–1522), devoting one chapter to each (Chapters 3–5). Two introductory chapters frame the case studies by explaining the specific approaches taken and theories applied within a larger framework of handscroll studies, while highlighting the social connections and cultural lives of the protagonists in the story of the scrolls’ production.

McCormick’s main points and findings in her erudite and elegantly written volume are multifaceted. The author establishes the [End Page 448] hitherto largely ignored short-story “small scroll,” literally “small picture” (ko-e), as a distinct genre within the Japanese handscroll tradition. These scrolls measure roughly fifteen centimeters in height and were thus also known in the fifteenth century as “half-sized pictures” (hangiri-e; p. 236 n. 83). McCormick asserts that small scrolls rendering medieval short stories constituted “a radically new pictorial form” (p. 214). This statement may be too strong, given that the handscroll format, which alternates passages of text and paintings, and is small in scale, had previously been used to present a different subject matter, such as the Life of Prince Shōtoku (pp. 52–53). The statement demonstrates, however, the author’s affective connection to the material and her zeal to argue for its recognition (a frequent characteristic of a dissertation, the former life of this publication),1 but she also offers reasons to substantiate her claim.

Using literary analyses, McCormick argues that the small scrolls she addresses are imbued with distinct narrative strategies informed by the specific genre of the short story. As she convincingly claims, this diminutive format served for the first time as the material vehicle for extracting from, and independently developing, short tales. Taken from a variety of contexts, such as compendia of Buddhist awakening scenes or collections of short stories, these narratives had rarely before been singled out as stand-alone works. The narratives could also be newly authored, but, as McCormick demonstrates, writing stories in Muromachi Japan was largely a work of taking excerpts from, and citing, previous texts, an act that demonstrates the authors’ erudition and access to elite manuscripts. Echoing the distinct character of the short story, the paintings are abbreviated and allusive, drawing on the rich visual vocabulary that had been developing in the history of paintings in the handscroll format since the eighth century in Japan.

McCormick’s book fills a large gap in the field of Japanese art history by addressing the versatile artistic range of one significant Tosa school painter. Despite its enduring importance in premodern Japanese pictorial culture, the Tosa is one of the least studied Japanese painting schools, and virtually no substantial research on any single Tosa painter is available in languages other than Japanese. Although [End Page 449] Mitsunobu,2 the Painting Bureau director at court (edokoro azukari) for an unparalleled span of more than fifty years since 1469, is known for his large-format paintings, such as the standard-size handscrolls depicting temple legends, or portraits and Buddhist icons on hanging scrolls, his small scrolls have not been previously examined as a discrete body of work within his broader oeuvre.

Through historical research and close textual and visual interpretations of particular ko-e, McCormick identifies the likely primary recipients of the scrolls, naturally all of whom belonged to the highest echelons of fifteenth-century Japanese society. She thereby distills an innovative way of connecting the viewer to the painting in these scrolls, one that highlights the specific meanings of depictions tailored for an individual viewer. She surmises that due to their small size, the scrolls were viewed by only one or two persons at a time. This distinguishes them from their larger-sized sisters, which were...


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pp. 448-461
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