B17 Frolicking Animals (Chōjū-giga)



Show Notes for bonus 17 of our Podcast – Frolicking Animals. (Chōjū-giga)

Story Notes


We return to Kyoto as we often do on our show, this time to a temple known as Kōzan-ji. It is not really a centralised temple in Kyoto, located in the north-west outskirts of the city. Settled more in the wilderness it is a rather beautiful temple and it is one I hope I can visit when I go next to Kyoto; hopefully with Heather.

Now the temple was once the location of a collection of important picture scrolls, now housed in the Kyoto and Tokyo National Museums. And reproductions can be seen at the temple should you visit.

These scrolls are known as the Chōjū-giga (鳥獣戯画, literally “Animal Caricatures”) or sometimes as Scrolls of Frolocking Animals.

Looking into the authorship of these scrolls, we find that once it was thought a Toba Sōjō was the author of them, or at least some of them; this man living from 1053-1140; but we will see why shortly that this is unlikely.

So what are these scrolls? Well they are four scrolls, using ink but with not text. In size they are not too large, 31cm high and only 1 metres long. We also have several small fragments of them from private collections and it is likely that these private fragments also formed part of the original.

These 4 scrolls of the Chōjū-giga have no special name attributed to them and are simply labelled as scrolls A through D. And what is fascinating about them is that they are unique, they show animals with human characteristics, and no other scrolls have been found that do this. They are a good example of the use of monochrome wash, known in Japan as Hakubyō, and the use of only ink and its fluid link were a prefigure to the rise of ink monochrome as a major mode of later Buddhist paintings.

Looking at the first scroll to give you all some idea of what they portrayed we see rabbits, frogs and monkeys all frolicking as if they were in fact human. We see rabbits and monkeys bathing and swimming in a lake and further along on the scroll we are shown rabbits and frogs making bows and arrows. Events not explained are shown, with rabbits and foxes bringing pots and boxes to a gathering of some sort.

Celebrations are shown with frogs dancing, rabbits shown walking passed monks with their cattle. And we can also see a monkey being chased by a rabbit with a large stick. Perhaps the monkey stole something from the rabbit? We are even shown a funeral with a frog praying infront of a frog shaped Budai (a semi-historic Chinese monk) as well as animal in wrestling matches. It is very fascinating to look at.

Scroll B contains a continuous landscape with animals in pure enjoyment with lions also shown roaring and scratching their backs. C brings together a collection of games and contests between monks and laymen; this includes a tug of war wth people using their heads and additionally shows a group of monkeys attacking an ox cart. And to finish it off D shows clerics undertaking rituals as well as amusements and smoking their pipes.

A quote from George Sansom from his book Japan: short cultural history from 1931 says:

The work belongs to the decline of the Fujiwara period, but it expresses in one of its best aspects the artistic spirit of their age. The artist is a delightful draughtsman. His pictures of animals disporting [themselves] in the garb of monks are alive with satirical fun. They are a true fruit of the native wit; they owe nothing to China beyond a vague debt to her older artistic tradition; and they bear witness to that reaction against the solemnities of Buddhist art which we have noticed.

So when it comes to the dating of these scrolls it is likely that scrolls A and B come from the end of the 12th century. With C and D dating to the Kamakura Period which lasted from 1185-1333AD. Now this shows why is it unlikely Toba Sōjō created these scrolls having been born in 1053. And more specifically, whereas they contain no text, scrolls C includes the date of 1253 upon it. Recent studies as well have suggested that more than one artist may have work on the scrolls.


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And another for other creative endeavours!

Heavenly Spear