The Japanese folk paintings known as Otsu-e are very dear to me as they were the subject of my first major exhibition as an Asian art curator at Pacific Asia Museum over 15 years ago. The name Otsu-e derives from Otsu, a town close to Kyoto and the last of the 51 post towns along the Tokaido, an important route that connected Japan’s capital Edo (former Tokyo) and Kyoto. Many travellers took this route and bought food, drink and souvenirs at the towns along the way. Created by local artists, Otsu-e were sold as souvenirs of Otsu in great numbers for little money in shops and stands that were set along the road, like postcards or t-shirts today.
The unknown painters of this small town created a painting genre that was versatile enough to reinvent itself in response to social changes and survive for more than three centuries, from the 17th century until the present. These folk paintings are characterized by lively, spontaneous brushstrokes and an unsophisticated charm and humor and depict gods, humans, animals, and supernatural beings in humorous and often satirical situations. For much of their history, they were accompanied by a didactic phrase encouraging certain behavior or warning against the types of people who might trick others or lead them astray. One of the most popular images was of a demon, or oni, dressed in the robes of a Buddhist priest – a warning that people are not always what they appear to be and a caustic attack on the Buddhist clergy in particular. The paintings were so popular that they influenced the nation’s literature, theater, dance, song, and the work of mainstream artists, and they only started to fade from popular culture when trains started to take travelers off the Tokaido.
Otsu-e Painting of a demon dressed as a Buddhist priest by Takahashi Shozan, 20th century
When I was working on the exhibition, I visited Otsu and met one of the few remaining Otsu-e artists, Takahashi Shozan, who gave me a couple of his paintings in thanks for helping to introduce Westerners to this tradition. I also acquired a few slender printed images of some of the most popular subjects in the Otsu-e repertoire, also by Shozan, I think. Today I gave these prints to our friend John who has spent much of his professional life working as a producer of animated tv series. We were celebrating his birthday with him, his wife Patty (see January 11 and May 31) and their son Harry (Feb 16), all of whom have become good friends of late. John has a wide range of interests and talents, being a writer, producer and a musician, and he is very worldly individual who appreciates many different cultures. Since animation is a vibrant part of contemporary Japanese culture, I wanted to share with him a Japanese artistic tradition that I believe is one of the roots of today’s Japanese manga and animation – this cartoon-like folk painting tradition from Otsu. The images from this tradition were not considered “high art,” but they were consumed by much of the population and are very revealing about the nation’s character – as are many of today’s animated offerings on tv and film. I was a little nervous about how John would react to these little prints, but when he saw them and pronounced them “beautiful,” I felt that the spirit, the humor and the artistry that guided the hands of the unknown artists of Otsu is indeed still alive today.