Tuesday 09 September 2003

Ishiyama moon

If anyone were to ask me, “Who is your favorite artist?”, I’d be hard pressed to choose between Tsukioka Yoshitoshi and Joseph Cornell. So I was delighted to see (albeit briefly) over the weekend a link in the side bar at wood s lot to an online catalog of Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, presented by the Stuart Jackson Gallery, a Canadian specialist in ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints).

One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (Tsuki hyakushi), Yoshitoshi’s last major work, was published between 1885 and 1892. It comprises a set of one hundred individual woodblock prints illustrating important events in Japanese history, mythology, and everyday life—unified by the presence of the moon in each design.

The Stuart Jackson catalog includes only twenty-four prints, so most of the best (and best-loved) images are missing. But a Google search on yoshitoshi “aspects of the moon” yields lots of pages illustrating other prints in the series (this page, for example, shows 54 thumbnails, each linked to a larger image).

Alternatively, John Stevenson’s marvellous Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon provides a large reproduction of each print with an accompanying explanation of its subject together with a wealth of information on the series as well as Yoshitoshi’s life and work.

Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji is sufficiently important to warrant two prints out of Yoshitoshi’s hundred: one illustrating the Yūgao chapter from Genji monogatari, the other showing Murasaki Shikibu at Ishiyamadera, the temple on Lake Biwa (near Kyoto) where she is said to have written some of her novel.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: The  Yugao chapter from "The Tale of Genji"
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: 100 Aspects of the Moon
#29, The Yūgao Chapter from “The Tale of Genji”
(Click for larger version)

In the Yūgao chapter, the fourth of fifty-four, Genji (the Shining Prince) accidentally stumbles on a dilapidated house and garden on his way to visit the old nurse who cared for him as a child. He notices that the house is covered with beautiful white flowers—yūgao, literally “evening face,” the “floral opposite” of asagao, morning-glory—and sends his servant to ask the lady of the house if he might have a few of the flowers. Her servant brings the flowers on a fan, together with a poem written with graceful calligraphy. In the Heian period (the story takes place some time in the tenth century), this exchange was sufficient to initiate a love affair between Genji and the mistress of the house.

John Stevenson explains:

Wraith-like, not conforming to the normal standard of Heian beauty, which in the Chinese Tang tradition was distinctly chubby, the lady fascinated Genji. She refused to tell him her history or her name, so he called her Yūgao after the flowers. Eventually she accepted his invitation to visit one of his lavish villas, where they consummated their delicate passions. She died within a few hours, fading as quickly as a yūgao flower, killed by the jealous spirit of one of Genji’s former mistresses. Genji mourned her more deeply than he did most of his lost loves.

[In Yoshitoshi’s print, number 29 in the series] Yūgao’s ghost wafts wistfully through her garden on a night of the full moon: yūgao is known also as “moonflower.” Flowers and vines show through the ghost’s transparent body. Her figure seems to have no volume, as if projected onto a surface, like a screen. The shade of blue used for Yūgao’s eye and lips is subtly different from that used for the background wash, making them stand out without over-emphasising them; blue lips were a convention to indicate a person who was dead or dying. Also highlighted are the yellow centers of the flowers; in the original print the white petals are embossed. The gourd is shaded on one side to give an impression of roundness. The colors have been beautifully printed to shade into nothingness at the bottom of the picture.

Yoshitoshi’s second Genji print shows Murasaki Shikibu seated in the moonlight at her writing table, on a balcony at Ishiyamadera (Ishiyama Temple).

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: Ishiyama Moon
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: 100 Aspects of the Moon
#71, Ishiyama Moon
(Click for larger version)

The Tale of Genji is thought to have been commenced around the beginning of the eleventh century and completed by 1021. According to John Stevenson:

There is a tradition that Lady Murasaki retired to the temple at Ishiyama, overlooking Lake Biwa, to begin writing. She arrived on the fifteenth evening of the eighth month, when the moon was full, and prayed through the night for divine help in the project. Inspired by the beauty of the moonlight reflected on the lake, she used the nearest paper at hand to write down several long trains of thought before she forgot them. The paper happened to be a scroll of the Daihannya, a Buddhist sutra; later she copied out a new scroll, to atone for using the scripture profanely. This scroll is still shown to visitors to the temple, as is the room in which tradition says she worked.

A lady in Heian costume leans on a writing-desk on a balcony in the temple, deep in thought, and with a scroll unrolled in front of her. Most illustrations of Murasaki show her looking over Lake Biwa under a full moon, but Yoshitoshi has chosen to show her gazing out over a moonlit mountain—the name Ishiyama means “stone mountain.” A light purple wash deepens the shadows in the valley.

When Yoshitoshi was considering the coloration of this design, the choice for Lady Murasaki’s robe was simple; murasaki means violet… Lady Murasaki in her violet robes was such a well-known figure that Yoshitoshi did not include her name in the title-cartouche.

Exterior of Tsukinoya Ryokan with welcome Joanason-sama signIn 1994 I spent a night at the Tsukinoya Inn at Otsu, not far from Ishiyamadera. When I arrived late one evening, I was surprised to see my name on the guest board: Joanason-sama (the right honorable Joanason). I was too late for dinner—the kitchen staff had gone home—so it looked as though I’d have to take the train back to Otsu if I wanted something to eat.

But when I explained that I’d come to see where Murasaki Shikibu had written part of The Tale of Genji, the innkeeper took a shine to me, telling me that she would personally cook me dinner, which would be ready once I’d finished my bath.

She served the meal and stayed to chat about Japanese literature while I ate. She bade me goodnight, I slept soundly, and the next morning—after a delicious breakfast—headed off to the temple.

As is the case with many Japanese temples, one approaches Ishiyamadera via a huge carpark full of tourist buses and an avenue of stalls selling souvenirs (which in this case comprised mostly tacky Muraski Shikibu dolls and figurines as well as sweets, cakes, and postcards). The room in which Lady Murasaki is said to have written the Ishiyama chapters contains a tableaux of the author at her desk.

Ishiyama-dera: Murasaki Shikibu tableaux

I was surprised when I looked through the photographs from that trip that I’d taken only the one above, perhaps because I bought a set of postcards, which included a much better view of Lady Murasaki at work:

Postcard of Murasaki Shikibu tableaux at Ishiyama-dera

The caption on the back of this postcard reads “Murasaki shikibu no genji no ma”, similar to the large Chinese characters to the right of the doorway in my photograph. This probably means “The room where Murasaki Shikibu wrote Genji”.

Although I’m glad I visited Ishiyamadera and saw the Murasaki Shikibu room, Yoshitoshi’s ukiyo-e print is infinitely more truthful and evocative (as I’m sure Lady Murasaki would agree).

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour