And when he came to the place where the wild things are/
They roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth
An eight-headed, nine-tailed monster greeted us at the door of the exhibition. Fortunately for us, the monster was preoccupied with other business, for he guards the gate to hell.
What occupies the monster at the moment is the itinerant monk Nichizō. Nichizō has come to hell in search of Emperor Daigo. He finds the Emperor engulfed in a sea of flames with blackbirds swooping at his head.
from Illustrated Legends of Kitano Tenjin Shrine
Nichizō needs the emperor’s advice about placating the spirit of Michizane, who has been wreaking havoc since he died in exile. Emperor Daigo is the one who banished Michizane, unjustly, as it turns out.
All this is happening at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in its exhibition, Storytelling in Japanese Art. Among other treasures, a complete set of rare thirteenth century handscrolls are on display for the first time. The handscrolls, the Illustrated Legends of Kitano Tenjin Shrine, are the only ones in existence that recount “Nichizō’s full journey to heaven and hell.”
These days, the handscrolls are viewed from behind glass panels, with several good-sized segments on display. Imagine, though, sitting with an ancient handscroll, perhaps as much as thirty feet in length. Imagine your left hand unrolling the handscroll in two-foot lengths, your right hand rolling up what you’ve read. Imagine the curl of paper in your grip, your hands moving in rhythm as you dwell upon each segment. With each winding of the handscroll, the story progresses: a new segment of the story is revealed, another rolls away.
The demon, drunk on the poisoned sake, retires to his chamber for a nap. The rescue party finds him, but chopping off his gigantic head is a danger in itself, as the severed head flies up and lands on Raikō’s own. Raikō’s life is saved, though, as he’s wearing the golden helmet. The maidens are rescued, and everyone lives happily ever after (except the demon and his subjects, of course).
Battles loom large in the handscrolls, and poetry and battles come together in The Battles of the Twelve Animals, which begins with a poetry competition. Battles ensue when the badger, spurned as the choice to judge a second competition, plots his revenge. When the badger is finally defeated, he becomes a Buddhist monk and composes “poems reflecting on the snow and the moon.”
The Tale of Mice. Nehyōe, the mouse-husband, is carried off by a goose while trying to satisfy his pregnant mouse-wife’s craving for meat cut from the bird’s right shoulder. Sister Toad and Lady Mole are summoned to help, while meanwhile Nehyōe wanders the countryside composing poems of lament. At long last, Nehyōe is rescued and sent home in a boat, and the mouse-couple lives happily ever more.
Interspersed among the handscrolls are precious objects relating to the stories on display, like these:
The Tales of Ise Playing Cards
It’s all there: life and death, poetry and danger, love and war. Even old pots and pans must be disposed of properly, or, as The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons admonishes, their spirits will not rest. Might Maurice Sendak, in writing Where the Wild Things Are, have taken a cue from this?
By the way, if you’re wondering what it took to placate Michizane, it was simple, in the end. Building a temple didn’t quite suffice; even after that, the imperial palace “mysteriously” burnt to the ground. Title, it seems, is all: peace descended only after Michizane was named tenjin and worshiped as a god.
The exhibition continues through May 6, 2012. For those unable to visit, there is a splendid publication that includes fold-out views of some of the handscrolls, as well as rich (if a bit hard to navigate) materials available online. For those lucky enough to be able to visit, the handscrolls will be wound periodically to put different segments on display. The first winding is to occur on February 8th.
For a Spotify playlist, click on Where the Wild Things Really Are.
Yasushi Akutagawa, Rhapsody
Daron Hagen, Koto Concerto: Genji
Qunihico Hashimoto, Symphony No.1 (2d movement excerpt)
Fumio Hayasaka, Piano Concerto (1st movement)
Hirokazu Hiraishi, A Rainbow in the Mirror
Alan Hovhaness, Fantasy on Japanese Wood Prints (Part 1)
Akira Ifukube, Meeting in the Rain
Akira Nishimura, Tala
Yoshiaki Onishi, 'Départ dans...'
Somei Satoh, Birds in Warped Time
Toru Takemitsu, And Then I Knew ’Twas Wind
Sakura "Cherry Blossoms,” Traditional Music of Japan, Classical Koto Music
Yoshida Brothers, Kodo
Credits: The photographs from The Drunken Demon and The Tale of Mice are of images in the exhibition publication. The remainder of the images are from the Metropolitan Museum's website. The Sendak quotation at the head of the post is from Where the Wild Things Are. The remainder of the quotations are from the exhibition publication and the Metropolitan Museum’s website.