Monday, December 10, 2007

Cho-Choju Giga

The Suntory Gallery, in Tokyo's new Midtown shopping-office-malling complex, is about to wrap up a fascinating look at what might well have been the first manga, ink illustrations on scrolls, some of which date from the 12th century. The oldest of the illustrations depicts animals doing things people would do-- or would have done 700 or 800 years ago. Most of the scenes involve frogs and rabbits, and you know this is a fantasy, because the frogs are as big as the rabbits, for one thing.
There are other scrolls that show some more straightforward illustrations, such as sketches of religious activities or fables dealing with Buddhism, and even a sequence of what to put it gently might be called an ancient farting contest.
The exhibit drew upon sets of these illustrations compiled by temples and other galleries and museums, and some illustrations that were not included in the scrolls. Historians are still trying to figure out who did the illustrations and why, but they have come up with some guesses and pieced together the illustrations based on what is known so far.
We particularly liked the sumo competition, in which the frog, who has a tummy much like mine, is decked by a fox. There are illustrations of rabbits who might have been the inspiration for the Uncle Remus Br'er Rabbit stories, and pompous priest frogs and wild boars and monkeys giving each other baths--something Japanese monkeys actually do at hot spring resorts, without having to pay.
Viewing the whole exhibit was out of the question, since some of the scrolls were rolled up to reveal other illustrations a week at a time, so it would have involved going back to the gallery weekly.
There are stories, or fables, to go with some of the illustrations, something like Aesop's fables, only more to do with things like a mouse who wanted to marry a human princess, or the farmer who gave up his daughter to a monkey who agreed to help him till his paddies. It's more interesting to see than to write about. But here is what you missed (or will miss unless you get there by Dec. 12.)