The Tale of Taishokan, 1640/80
Pair of six-panel screens; ink, colors, and gold on paper
each 173 x 374 cm
Restricted gift of Charles C. Haffner III and Muriel Kallis Newman; Alyce and Edwin DeCosta and Walter E. Heller Foundation Endowment; through prior gift of Charles C. Haffner III, 1996.436.1-2
This screen narrates the medieval Taishokan tale, an action-adventure story that captivated medieval and early modern audiences whether they saw it performed on the Noh, Bunraku or Kabuki stage, or depicted in paintings and prints. The many variants of the tale combine elements from early Japanese mythology and history; 14th-century Buddhist temple origin legend (engi) that reflects continuing anxiety about foreign invasion in the wake of the Mongol attacks of the late 13th century, and Noh play motifs.
The story unfolds from right to left, opening with a scene in and around the courtyard of Fujiwara Kamatari’s residence in the Nara area. Kamatari, the most powerful courtier of the seventh century, was the first and only person ever granted the rank of ‘Taishokan,’ the highest rank in a system used only between 647 and 685. According to legend, reputation of Kamatari daughter’s beauty made its way to China, where the emperor Taizong fell in love with her sight unseen, and asked to marry her. Kamatari’s daughter, Kohakunyo, is shown boarding her carriage to be sent abroad on the ships depicted below. Her new home, the Chinese court, is shown to the left. On the left screen, the treasures that the princess sends back to Japan, the most precious of them a jewel in which is embedded a tiny statue of the Buddha, have been entrusted to the Chinese general Wanhu. Wanhu is shown in battle with the forces of the dragon king who lives beneath the sea and succeeds in stealing the precious jewel. In the end, Kamatari (in other versions, such as the Noh play Ama [15th c.] and Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s Bunraku play Taishokan , it is Kamatari’s grandson Fusasaki) enlists the help of a diver woman to recover the stolen jewel. She manages to sneak into the undersea Dragon Palace, recover the jewel, and escape—pursued by the Dragon King’s horde. Just as she reaches the surface—at the very center of the screen—she is slain by one of the Dragon King’s minions, a serpent-warrior. When the men on Kamatari’s ship recover her body, they find the jewel concealed in a slit she had cut into her chest—she had knowingly sacrificed herself, that is, to recover the precious jewel.
For a translation of one version of the Taishokan story, see Melanie Trede, Image, Text and Audience: The Taishokan Narrative in Visual Representations of the Early Modern Period (Peter Lang, 2003).
The Saint Louis Art Museum, Beyond Golden Clouds: Japanese Screens from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Saint Louis Art Museum, October 18, 2009- January 3, 2010
The Art Institute of Chicago, Beyond Golden Clouds: Japanese Screens from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Saint Louis Art Museum, Regenstein Hall, June 26-September 27, 2009.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Storytelling in Japanese Art. February 2012.
Janice Katz, ed., Beyond Golden Clouds: Japanese Screens from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Saint Louis Art Museum, exh. cat. (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2009).
Janice Katz, "Allusion and Illusion: Harimaze-type Folding Screens in The Art Institute of Chicago and the Saint Louis Art Museum," Orientations, 40, 5, (June 2009), pp.48-53.
Shirahata et al. 1990, vol. 1, cat. 147.