Emakimono (絵巻物)

Emakimono (an illustrated scroll) is a kind of Japanese style painting composed of series of illustrated scenes or stories on a horizontally long screen made up of multiple sheets of rectangular paper (or silk cloth) connected side by side.
It is also called as 'emaki.'
Many emakimono have numbers of pictures and captions (narrative texts), alternately arranged for each text to explain what its relevant picture depicts, but there are also some emakimono with pictures only. Emakimono was originated in Chinese gakan (illustrated handscrolls), but later developed independently in Japan.

The first emakimono painted in Japan is reportedly the "E Ingakyo" (literally, an illustrated sutra of the past and present causes and effects) produced in the Nara period. On this emakimono, sutras are described on the lower stand while pictures used to explain the sutras are laid out at upper stand above related texts.

During the Heian period, there emerged some emaki which were produced as subjects of dynastic styled literature, preaching type stories. These emaki created their own style, alternating the arrangement of pictures and uninterrupted texts of relevant captions, on paper materials where flowers and birds were designed and foils, thin and long strip, and fine powder of gold and silver were used for decoration.

These monogatari-emaki (illustrated scrolls of tales) could depict in their own way of expression such stories as of "Makura no Soshi" (the Pillow Book), "Ise Monogatari" (the Tales of Ise), "Genji Monogatari" (the Tale of Genji), "Uji Shui Monogatari" (a collection of the Tales from Uji) and others, and especially "Genji Monogatari Emaki" (illustrated scrolls of the Tale of Genji) was drawn in rich colors to show the lives of noble class people, by using a special compositional technique called fukinuki-yatai which is useful to depict a residential interior without a roof and ceiling so that viewers can see overall conditions of the residence and furniture of that time.

During the Kamakura period, many emaki were produced, including kasen emaki (illustrated scrolls of celebrated poets), senki emaki (illustrated scrolls of war tales), jisha engi (illustrated legends of temples and shrines) and denki emaki (scrolls of illustrated biographies of well-known priests).

What are regarded as the best four picture scrolls in Japan are "Genji Monogatari Emaki," "Shigisan Engi" (legends of Mr. Shigi), "Ban Dainagon Emaki" (illustrated scrolls of the story of a courtier Ban Dainagon) and "Choju Jinbutsu Giga" (scrolls of frolicking animals and humans).


Kansuso' (a hand scroll or horizontal scroll) means a binding style of a horizontally long sized scroll of paper (or silk cloths on rare occasions) made up of many rectangular sheets connected side by side in lateral direction, and equipped with a roller on one end of the sheet to wind the whole sheet up on it to store the scroll, and we call various documents, Buddhist sutras, and other paintings, which are made up in this kansuso method of binding, as 'kansubon' or more generally 'makimono.'
Kansubon were popularly made and used in China, Korean Peninsula, Japan and other East Asian countries, as well as even in ancient Egypt where some similar examples were reported.

Emakimono' or 'emaki' means whole pictorial works of kansuso style binding, but, when the term 'emakimono' is used in the history of Japanese art, it is usually understood to indicate mainly the works of yamato-e style paintings made in Japan (a typical Japanese traditional style of painting), or in some cases, the term is often limited to the works produced during the Heian period through to the Muromachi period.
Similar pictorial scrolls of kansuso style painted in China are not called 'emakimono' but 'gakan' or 'zukan,' and also ink paintings by Japanese, such as "Sansui Chokan" (literally, long scroll of landscape scenery) by Sesshu, a ink painter, are usually not called 'emakimono.'


During the Nara period in Japan, some pieces of illustrated scrolls of Buddhist sutras, commonly known as "E Ingakyo" were produced. Each scroll of them has a space divided into two parts, with the lower part having text copies of Buddhist sutra descriptions about Shakyamuni's previous life and his enlightenment as Buddha, and the upper part having pictures corresponding to the descriptions below them. All pictures on these scrolls were done in a very simple style. There are two opposing opinions that, on the one hand, "E Ingakyo" is to be regarded as a root of Japanese emakimono (illustrated scrolls), and, on the other hand, it has nothing to do with emakimono produced after the Heian period.

According to such descriptions written in a volume captioned 'Eawase' (picture contest) in "Genji Monogatari,' many scrolls of illustrated tales may be assumed to have been produced during the beginning and middle Heian period in Japan, but since none of such scrolls are now existing that were produced between the 9th and 11th centuries, we are unable to trace clearly how the styles of illustrated scrolls, of that period, had developed. The so called 'the best four picture scrolls' are now ascertained by historical evidence to be works of the 12th century, or the later Heian period, which are "Genji Monogatari Emaki," "Ban Dainagon Ekotoba" (Also known as "Ban Dainagon Emaki"), "Shigisan Engi," and "Choju Jinbutsu Giga" (the exception of two scrolls out of four "Choju Jinbutsu Giga" scrolls that are believed to have been made later in the Kamakura period). These works are not just the oldest existing illustrated scrolls, but are also appraised as the most valuable works of art.
The glory days of illustrated scrolls were from the late Heian period to the Kamakura period, while in the Muromachi period there were also lots of illustrated scrolls produced but none could be compared to the aforesaid 'best four picture scrolls.'
Also in the modern age, a lot of pictures were painted in the style of emakimono by such artists as Sotatsu TAWARAYA, Tanyu KANO and Matabei IWASA, but these pictures are now often excluded from the category of 'emakimono.'


The word 'emaki' is used in two ways; one is to attach the word at the end of the name of its corresponding mother work, like "Genji Monogatari Emaki" and "Murasaki Shikibu Nikki Emaki" (illustrated scroll of the Lady Murasaki's Diary), and another way is to regard the term of 'emaki' or 'emakimono' as a concept to collectively refer to the pictures painted in kansu (a handscroll or horizontal scroll) style. However, the words of 'emaki' and 'emakimono' came to be used only after the modern age, and according to records written before the medieval period, they were simply expressed with the ending of 'XX-e' (literally, XX's picture).

Illustrated scrolls are often titled with endings of '-ekotoba,' '-soshi,' '-eden' and others, like "Heiji Monogatari Ekotoba" (illustrated stories of Heiji Rebellion), "Jigoku Zoshi" (handscrolls depicting Buddhist hell), "Honen Shonin Eden" (illustrated tales of Honen, a Buddhist saint) and so on.
Among them, the word 'ekotoba' is pointed out to have originally meant as 'words for pictures,' namely, sentences corresponding to particular pictures, so that some may claim that '-emaki' is more suitably titled than '-ekotoba.'
For example, "Ban Dainagon Emaki" was originally named as "Ban Dainagon Ekotoba" in 1951 when it was designated as a national treasure, but now is called "Ban Dainagon Emaki" at Idemitsu Museum of Arts, the current owner of the subject.


As already explained, emakimono is a painting drawn on a long sheet of paper (or, rarely, a sheet of silk cloth) composed of a number of rectangular sheets connected side by side in the horizontal direction, while those painted on silk include "Ippen Shonin Eden" (illustrated tales of a Buddhist saint, Ippen) and "Kasuga Gongen Kenki Emaki" (illustrated scrolls of miracles of the Kasuga god). The most popular pattern of emakimono is an alternate appearance of 'e' (picture) and 'kotoba' (text or description), where the preceding 'kotoba' is immediately followed by a corresponding 'e' in ordinary cases (but with rare exceptional cases). A series of pictures or texts in an emakimono is counted as one 'dan' (section), and, if an emakimono is said to have 'e 4-dan, kotoba 4-dan' (four sections of picture and four sections of text), it means the picture and text will appear alternately four times.
At the same time, there were some emakimono created with different patterns than the above, such as "Choju Jinbutsu Giga" which had no text, but pictures only, and "Kegonshu Soshi Eden" (pictorial biographies of the founders of the Kegon sect) that contained 'spoken lines' beside some characters in a scene in addition to 'kotoba.'

Most emakimono have pictures of more or less 30cm high in full vertical length, but some have even larger pictures with a vertical length of 50cm or more like the Jokyu version of "Kitano Tenjin Engi Emaki" (an illustrated history of Kitano shrine). There are also some emakimono with smaller pictures of about 15cm high like otogi-zoshi (illustrated short prose narratives of Japan) which are called koe (small pictures). Overall length, from left to right ends, of emakimono varies very much, with majority length in the vicinity of 10m, but also with such length as 20m per one scroll like "Kokawadera Engi Emaki" (a picture scroll of the legends of Kokawa-dera Temple).

Each emakimono is completed either in one scroll or in multiple scrolls. "Honen Shonin Eden" of both Chionin Temple in Kyoto and Okuin of Taima-dera Temples in Nara (deepest located temple house of Taima-dera Temple) have the largest number of scrolls of an emakimono work, namely 'forty-eight,' which number is compared to 'forty-eight vows' of Amida Nyorai (Amitabha Tathagata).

There are some works whose names have the ending of '-emaki' but are nevertheless kept in frames or in vertical hanging scrolls. These works were originally completed in the style of emakimono, but later split off into pieces of illustrated paper either to be fixed in frames for the preservation purpose or to be transferred or sold out to others. A typical example of the former case is "Genji Monogatari Emaki" in the possession of the Gotoh Art Museum and the Tokugawa Art Museum, where emaki is partitioned into each dan (section) of both pictures and texts and set in frames. One well-known example of the latter case of emakimono, split into pieces to be transferred, is the Satake version of "Sanju-roku Kasen Emaki" (illustrated scroll of the thirty-six celebrated poets). This work was originally composed of two scrolls of emakimono where each poet's portrait was painted beside his or her profile and representative poem. It was in the Taisho period when this emaki was offered for sale, but since no body was able to purchase it in complete sets, it was divided into pieces of each poet and sold out to different individual buyers (collectors).

Composition and Brushwork

Emakimono are viewed horizontally on a desk, and so on, although other art works are mostly set up vertically for appreciation, like wall paintings, fusumae (paintings on sliding-doors panels), kakejiku (hanging scrolls), byobu (folding screens consisting of multiple and joined panels). In addition to the above way of viewing, emakimono is generally limited to a narrow vertical length so that many pictures are composed as if they are looked down upon from. In some emakimono depicting the inside of a house, a special composition technique was used to make viewers able to see figures inside the house by eliminating the complete roofs and ceilings. This method of painting, which gives an image of houses with roofs and ceilings missing, is called 'fukinuki-yatai' and can be typically noted in "Genji Monogatari Emaki" and others. This 'fukinuki-yatai' method was applied not only to emakimono, but also to gajo (an album of paintings). Another characteristic painting method of emakimono is 'Iji Dozu Gaho' (a composition method used to show successive events within a united background). This method was used to allow repeated appearances of the same figure in the same scene to show passage of time, as may be seen in such typical screen pages as 'Kodomo no Kenka' (children's fight) in "Ban Dainagon Emaki" and Daibutsu-den (hall of the Great Statute of the Buddha) of Todai-ji Temple in "Shigisan Engi Emaki" (Also known as "Shigisan Engi"). In the latter case of the above, a character of Amagimi (the nun) appears six times in one scene. This scene is depicting a sequence of events as time goes on in one picture, namely the arrival of Amagimi at Daibutsu-den hall, her pray to the Buddha statue, her overnight stay in the hall in seclusion, and her departure at dawn.

Another fundamental difference of emakimono from fusumae, kakejiku, byobu, and other forms of traditional paintings is that emakimono is unable to be overviewed. Although emakimono is exhibited at a museum or any other place by showing a few meters of unfolded part of it is in a glass case, the standard way of appreciation of emakimono is to put it on a desk and scroll with the left hand its left side to see new screens while with right hand is rolling up already viewed scenes on the right side. With this style of emakimono pictures, the vertical length of a picture is limited but its horizontal length is not, which makes it possible to depict a drastic development of any long story on a long space of paper and also to show there the passage of time.
As a typical example of this feature of emakimono, the first roll of two scrolls of "Ban Dainagon Emaki" has a scenery of fire at Otenmon (the red-painted front gate) which depicts flaring Otenmon, crowds of viewers, government's officers trotting down on to the site upon receiving information, and so on, in a few meters long series of pictures only without any 'kotoba.'
This kind of composition of long successive series of 'e' to show development of scenes by unrolling a scroll is called 'progression style composition.'
On the other hand, a composition of alternating appearance of a picture and text pages of about 50 to 60 cm width to be overviewed by spreading on a desk is called 'section style composition,' typical example of which is "Genji Monogatari Emaki."
In existing works of emakimono, there are not so many 'progression style compositions' showing effective features of emakimono, but there are many 'section style compositions.'

Documentary Value

Emakimono is attracting attention to its artistic value as well as to its documentary value as visual historical and folklore materials (pictorial material). Emakimono represents various items such as clothing, architecture, food, weapons and armor, furnishing goods, and so on, which do not necessarily reflect their real status in the days of production but, nevertheless, provides valuable visual information for various studies and research, including history of clothing, history of architecture, folklore, and Yusoku-kojitsu (studies in ancient court and military practices and usage). For example, the scene of Daibutsu-den of Todai-ji Temple painted in "Shigisan Engi" produced in 12th century is the only one existing material depicting actual Daibutsu (Great Statue of the Buddha) and its hall in the age of their creation. Also "Gaki Soshi" (hungry ghosts scroll) shows us real conditions of toilet of that time, which we can no longer trace in other documentary materials.

Classification by Contents

Emakimono are classified, according to the subjects of painted pictures, into monogatari-e (illustrated tales), setsuwa-e (didactic pictures), senki-e (illustrated tales of battles), shaji-engi-e (illustrated founding stories of shrines and temples), kosoden-e (illustrated biographies of high rank priests), kasen-e (illustrated scroll of celebrated poets) and so on. Monogatari-emaki' (an illustrated scroll of tales) is usually understood to cover pictorial works based on the line of 'Ocho-monogatari' (stories of dynasties) such as "Genji Monogatari" (the Tale of Genji), and, therefore, even such illustrated stories as those based on "Uji Shui Monogatari" (collection of tales from Uji) are usually classified into "setsuwa emaki" (illustrated scroll of preaching stories). Because of its painted form, many emaki are characterized by their visualized subjects based upon various tales with plot, but there are also exceptions like kasen-e with a sequence of poets' portraits without any plot.

[Original Japanese]