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Reviewed by:
  • Tosa Mitsunobu and the Small Scroll in Medieval Japan
  • Donald F. McCallum (bio)
Tosa Mitsunobu and the Small Scroll in Medieval Japan. By Melissa McCormick. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2009. 292 pages. $75.00.

Melissa McCormick’s recent book offers a detailed account of the “small scroll” (ko-e) category of Japanese picture scrolls (emaki). As the author points out, the ko-e are not treated in the enormous, 55-volume corpus of picture scrolls edited by Komatsu Shigemi between 1977 and 1995 (her note 20, p. 229), and as recently as 2006 the same held true for the major exhibition held at the Kyoto National Museum, “Emaki Unrolled: Masterworks of Illustrated Narrative Handscrolls.” For those unfamiliar with the ko-e, a word on their basic structure: at about 15 centimeters high, they are approximately half the size of the traditional scrolls and ordinarily they have only four to eight pictures alternating with text, for a total length that is usually quite short.

The book begins with an excellent account of the history of the small scrolls followed by a detailed discussion of two individuals who are central to the author’s project, the painter Tosa Mitsunobu and the courtier Sanjōnishi Sanetaka. Three scrolls, dating to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, are analyzed at length, Utatane sōshi emaki (A wakeful sleep), Jizō sōshi emaki (The Jizō hall), and Suzuriwari sōshi emaki (Breaking the inkstone). Additionally, McCormick discusses a now-lost scroll documented in Sanetaka’s diary and painted by Mitsunobu, Takano gumo e (Clouds of Mt. Kōya).1 [End Page 425]

The great merit of this book is the introduction of a previously un-derresearched group of artworks, thereby calling to our attention a number of scrolls that are certainly worth study and appreciation. McCormick combines great skill as both an art historian and a scholar of literature in presenting her exegeses of the scrolls. As a person more attuned to longer works of fiction such as Genji monogatari and A la recherché du temps perdu, I hope I can be excused for having less enthusiasm for the tales in question than the author; on the other hand, I found her combination of visual and literary analysis to be brilliant, bringing the various scrolls alive and resonant in the way the stories alone were not, at least to me.

Each of the three scrolls has different characteristics, thereby enhancing the interest of the book. Utatane sōshi emaki is an aristocratic romance tale that allows McCormick to probe the extremely important role of dreams in medieval Japanese culture. In contrast, Jizō sōshi emaki has a religious theme combined with a somewhat bizarre romance involving a monk and a beautiful woman who turns out to be a dragon. Ultimately, the monk recognizes his sinful ways and returns to pious ways although the poor lady/dragon still does not achieve a higher level of Buddhist enlightenment. (For some reason, this scroll is illustrated in monochrome at the front, somewhat disappointingly, given the importance of color for the overall aesthetic effect, but fortunately there are a number of color details in the body of the text allowing one to appreciate this aspect.) Suzuriwari sōshi emaki has a very different type of narrative, dealing with a servant in a wealthy family breaking a highly prized inkstone, thus inevitably destined for serious punishment, only to be saved by a young boy of the family who takes responsibility for the accident. Apparently, in some versions of this tale, the distraught father executes his son although here the son is merely exiled, tragically to die there. McCormick offers a detailed exegesis of this story, interpreting it as expressing a close relationship, probably sexual, between a young boy and an older man. In this regard, she gives a somewhat idealized account of the chigo phenomenon, suggesting that such relationships explain some aspects of the present scroll.

Amply illustrated, the book is easy to use since in addition to the full coverage of the three scrolls at the front, there are also many details placed in the appropriate locations in the text, so one need not go...


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pp. 425-429
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