The singularities of the Japanese Ko-e with the example of the manuscript “The Tale of a Rat”

The paper roll of small images (Ko-e) is a type of Japanese paper roll[1] presenting short stories. It appeared in the 14th century and was applied until the 19th-20th centuries. Ko-e became more widespread in the 15th-16th centuries, however,  and the example which we are going to observe in this research dates back to that period as well. But before that, let’s get acquainted in more detail  with the singularities of this format of the paper roll.

Usually, the height of the paper rolls of small images is 15 cm – exactly half the size of a regular paper roll. The standard size of a usual paper roll is approximately 30 centimeters high and 50 centimeters wide for each paper. Therefore, for making Ko-e it was only necessary to cut the standard paper into two equal lengths and glue its pieces to each other creating a text-image-text sequence. The choice of this size is not accidental.

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The first factor is the singular format. Usually, in medieval Japan short stories were summarized in collections and were only  available to a limited number of people because as a rule they were intended for institutions rather than individuals. And Ko-e, which was intended for presenting short stories, allowed the author to separate any story from those collections, illustrate and present it as a separate manuscript intended for individuals. These short stories, as a rule, are only focused on the main character, have one plot line and end with a turning point and an unexpected event. The small size of the story, however, was not the only reason for the non-standard size of this paper roll.

Another factor could be the audience. The didactic (educational) application of the stories presented in Ko-e also allows us to assume  that the readers were mainly young people and teenagers. Besides, the small size of the paper rolls was also very convenient for keeping them in private libraries and for reading the preferred story in free time.

As in the case of a usual paper roll, the reader gradually opens the paper roll of small images from right to left, first  reading the text and  then looking at  the images and the speed of the story develops due to the speed at  which the paper roll moves. The pace of reading a story , however, depends not only on the reader, but also on the author. A skilled artist is able to decelerate or accelerate it by using illustrative tricks. Thus, the satisfaction of the scene with a large number of details slows down the reading process by making the person stop and study all the details of the image. To get the opposite effect, the  trick  (iji dōzu)  called ‘’different times, same scene’’ is often used which allows them to press the time, place two sequential events side by side and present the same character twice in one scene. The use of diagonal, left-sided (in the direction of opening the roll) architectural designs also serves the same purpose. All these tricks  allow us to create a unique format of presenting stories with impressive “savings” of resources. To get acquainted with the details of Ko-e let’s observe a 16th century manuscript “The Tale of a Rat”.

“The Tale of a Rat”

The observed tale is a short story telling about the transformation of an individual which like many other samples of Ko-e has a didactic meaning and bears the influence of Buddhist teaching, which greatly influenced the Japanese culture at that time. To facilitate further study we will conventionally divide the story into three parts taking into account the clear separation of text parts and illustrations by the author which, in fact, ensures  the rhythmic development of events.

Part 1

The paper roll begins with a text component which also eventually extends slightly  to the first illustration in the story. Usually, these two components do not intersect. It is more likely that the author took this step not intentionally but because he did not have enough paper at hand. Nevertheless, this in its turn creates a certain attraction,  likening the beginning of the story to a dream.

As we see, the scene opens with a gate image. This trick in Japanese painting and in narrative painting is a common way to begin a  story. The gate symbolizes the entrance of the reader to a new world. Besides, the gate also gives important information about the residence where the events are going to develop. In particular, the absence of the roof on the pictured gate and the noticeable holes on the boards show that the homeowners are quite poor.

It gets clear from the preface that the story is about an old nun[2],  whose precious daughter will soon be 20 years old, thus being further away from the age of marriage. It is a problem for her, which the girl and their female servants realize as well. And one day, the daughter of the nun expresses her passionate desire to have a husband like magic sitting on her veranda. And her dream soon comes true. In general, the details are essential in Ko-e. They have a symbolic nature and without being reflected in the original text give additional meaning to the story.

Especially in the picture from above, as if looking from the roof, it is seen through the open door how the girl is cleaning the clothes by hitting them on the stone. The Japanese poetry also has this motif and reminds of autumn. This allows us to assume that it is autumn outside. According to one of the hypotheses[3], here can be seen a connection with a well-known Noh play[4] from almost the same period, where  the woman longs for her husband and cleans his clothes by hitting the stone hoping that the wind will carry the rhythmic sound of the blow and will call back her husband. Unfortunately, he never comes back and the woman dies bearing the longing in her heart. As we can see, this small detail presented in the first scene already hints that we are about to meet a young woman who longs for her husband.

Besides, inside the house is also visible a ring shaped mat of straw which reminds of a seat and allows one to assume that someone will visit the owners of the house soon. An impression is created that this mysterious visitor may not be alien to the girl. The dog sleeping on the doorstep in most cases symbolizes the peace of the home.

In the next scene we move to another place of home again following the events from above. The architectural solutions  depicted in this episode allows to draw  the reader’s attention to the  two main performers. We see the nun in a blue headscarf  with  her hand on the support device. She has  slightly  tilted  her head down   and looks in the daughter’s direction who in turn looks at the book with her hand under her head. Their two servants are also present who are busy with sewing. The poverty of the household  is also still visible  which is manifested by the gaps on the veranda boards.

In the last scene of the first part of the story we witness the fatal meeting. Soon after the wish the girl made on the veranda a young courtier appears from nowhere with a traditional hat on his head. He crosses the threshold of the veranda and looks at the girl.

And the two deer, the yellowing leaves of the trees and the moon once again hint that the events are taking place in autumn giving a poetic tone to the preface.

Part 2

Like the preface, the second part of the story begins with a text component. If the preface implied acquaintance with the main performers, their feelings had a poetic tone then the second part can be described as a stage in the development of the story. We learn  from the text that the man, who had appeared suddenly, starts to visit the girl at nights and the promises he made were far from being false. The girl also answered him warmly. But looking at the story through the eyes of the nun we see that the old woman who has not met the mysterious admirer of her daughter yet is worried about her. She is not sure what all this can lead to but seeing her daughter’s happiness and the persistence and attention of her beloved the nun becomes grateful for this connection and with her silence approves of his daughter’s choice.

Time passes. The young courtier starts to take care of the needs of the house and send various gifts due to which the nun’s housekeeping quickly prospers. With such a scene begins the next illustration.

The nun and her daughter enjoy the luxurious gifts provided by the man: clothes (you can see behind the girl’s back), paper rolls, fabrics (next to  the nun). Beside the girl, in the right corner, you can even see an incense burner. Looking carefully, you can see its black, network-like structure covered with  clothes and behind the nun you can see the young female servant who brings the luxurious gold-plated container of incense to place it inside the net and to give a sweet scent to the room and the clothes.

The gifts are not limited to this. In the veranda we see a barrel of sake and quite appetizing fish which is evidenced by the look of the nun’s favorite cat from behind the door. Besides the gifts, the courtier also sends carpenters to renovate  the house.

The next scene shows how the masters replace the broken floorboards with new ones. So, the nun and her daughter’s once poor house begins to be transformed and repaired. All the changes that have taken place are wonderfully combined in the third scene. The cellar has been replenished with food and ceramics. And in the next room we can see how the courtier and the girl enjoy the pleasure of the food and sake. In the background we can also see koto[5], a Japanese instrument, with golden strings. The illustration ends with another symbolic meeting.

Comparing the first and third scenes we can see that the girl continues to separate the  contacts  between her and her mother, her and her beloved. The separation of the performers’ relations is also expressed in architectural details, particularly due to the middle of the door which seems to symbolize the divider which exists in the relations of the characters. Nevertheless, the overall picture of the second part of the story shows that due to the courtier’s revelation and care stability is established in the house and all the women living here feel safer and more secure. Even the nun starts not to worry about her daughter.

Part 3

Months turned into years but the nun never saw  her daughter’s mysterious admirer. At last, at the urging of the servants of the house that meeting takes place. With that very scene begins the third illustration. Notably, starting from this phase all the ‘’architectural barriers’’ disappear; the roof, the dividing parts of the door. This allows the reader to fully immerse themselves in the meeting without missing any event.

The text preceding the image again presents the nun’s opinion about the meeting. The courtier doesn’t seem indecent to the woman at all. Moreover, he seems like a  quite polite man, so the nun doesn’t object to their relationships. In the scene, the courtier’s hand is on the fan which suggests that he is going to express his love for the girl with a speech. This can also be inferred  from the girl’s posture,  who, in turn, gently, as if ashamed, grabbed her hair.

Leaving the room, we see again the nun’s cat which chases the maid bringing the hospitality. It enters the same room where everyone is gathered for dinner.

Suddenly, the festive scene gets interrupted. The cat starts to examine the courtier carefully and the latter fixes his gaze on the cat. The man becomes pale and starts to tremble with fear. The nun and her daughter follow the courtier who, in fact, transforms in front of their eyes. Looking  closely at the man’s face and comparing it to the previous scenes we can see that his hair is no longer smooth and styled,  but stuck like hedgehog thorns and his clean-shaven  face is already covered with whiskers. His eyes have also changed. The peppers seem to have widened and looked like whole black dots. This is how his real image is revealed. While the nun and her daughter were staring  in amazement, the cat attacked and ate the man who had transformed into a rat. In the last scene we see the beheaded rat in the mouth of the cat and the sadness of the girl and her mother as if what had happened was some kind of karma. Though the girl was very stressed  over  the fact that she had shared a bed with a rodent she believed that there had been a karmic connection [6] between them.

This story does not have any instructive ending or conclusion and at first glance it may seem incomplete but readers familiar with the principles of Buddhism[7]understand that the tale is about realizing the illusory nature of life. It seems to inform that one should be careful in one’s own desires. We have also mentioned the significance of means of expression in the embodiment of content in Ko-e many times. Therefore, in order to  understand its completeness in the context of such a relative conciseness  of history, I consider it necessary to refer to the key Buddhist ideas and creative solutions underlying in the fairy tale which will help to fill all the “gaps” in the semantic and figurative part of story respectively.

The role of Buddhist beliefs in ‘’The tale of a rat’’

As we have already mentioned, the story has a rather pronounced Buddhist connotation. It is based on the idea of the transience of life and Buddhist beliefs.

In particular, the connection between desire and suffering is outlined. In Buddhism there are four key “Noble Truths”:

  • Life is suffering,
  • All sufferings come from desire,
  • Enlightenment can be achieved by eliminating all desires,
  • The path of the eight with eight complete “right behaviors” can help get rid of desires.

As we see the reason for the suffering of the heroes in “The tale of a rat” is the desire.

The desire to see the girl married and happy did not allow the nun and the house servants to see the real image of the courtier who suddenly appeared. And the only protagonist that was discerning in this story was the cat.

Central to the content analysis of the story is the Buddhist notion of mujō, which expresses the idea of variability and transience. It expresses the feeling of the passage of time, the fragility and variability of every moment of life. For centuries, this idea has been one of the main categories of Japanese culture and it is also reflected in the “The tale of a rat”.

The function of creative solutions

The study of Ko-e, like any other work of medieval Japanese art, requires knowledge of the aesthetic categories and technical tricks of the region, otherwise they give the impression of incomplete sketches. Therefore, I consider it necessary to make a small reference to the two most obvious creative tricks in the story.

Minimalism in female characters

In “The tale of a rat”, women do not only have expressive features and personality specific to the character, but also their faces resemble a mask. This is not the result of the artist’s arbitrariness. The image of women adheres to the rule of minimalism established in Japanese graphic art from the 10th century. Narrow eyes, snub nose – this trick called hikime kagibana allows the artist to depict people’s faces with identical features. Besides, the expression of physical beauty is often overlooked in Japanese art. Especially when it came to women of noble descent, the “beauty of the heart” and education was valued much more than the depiction of external beauty.

Architectural tricks

In the case of small paper formats such as Ko-e, architecture plays an important role. It not only paves the way for the development of heroic relationships, but also builds the semantic details of the story. In “The Tale of a Rat” we see how architectural solutions change in three separate parts of the story. In particular, while at the beginning of the story the reader follows the events from the top, in the middle that distance is reduced and the scenes are presented from the front angle. In the end all the roofs and barriers vanish, allowing the reader to visually enter the characters’ personal space.

In general, the trick of depicting the interior without a roof (Fukinuki yatai) is widespread in Japanese graphic art, which allows you to follow the events from the height of a bird’s flight, see a wide picture of a celebration, action or city scene, preserving the “role of observer” in the story.

It is not known who painted the “The tale of a rat”, but the artist’s handwriting, the clear separation of text and images in the paper roll, as well as the observance of the special rules of Japanese graphic art of the time, suggest that the author was a professional, probably a palace painter(kyūtei eshi)[8].

Of course, not all of the features we’ve referred to in “The tale of a rat” are specific to all of Ko-e’s designs, depending on the author (for example, most amateur designs do not have a clear separation of text and images) or period. However, the study of the fairy tale allows us to single out the following main characteristics of Ko-e:

  • Ko-e presents only one short story,
  • It depicts a story with one plot line built around one main character,
  • the age of the hero (young, married girl) and the size of the story show that it was made for didactic purposes,
  • concentrating the main motif and creative tricks in a small piece of paper gives meaning to any detail.

Thus, the knowledge of Ko-e-specific creative principles, their functions and technical tricks, as our reference to the “The tale of a rat” showed, allows us to understand the meaning of the story for Japanese readers at the time, and that, in turn, contributes to a more adequate understanding of the Japanese art format we study.

[1] The paper roll was the main means of presenting illustrated stories in the period before the modern period of Japan (the border of the 19th-20th centuries). It consists of glued papers the length of which depends on the wish of the creator. For example, the length of some specimens are even more than 20 meters long.

[2] In Buddhism, a nun is a woman who devotes herself to Buddhist religious practice. In the medieval period, a woman could take a Buddhist oath after the death of her husband or children or after a significant, often tragic event. The transition from secular life to religious life was marked by the cutting of a woman’s long hair up to her shoulders or the complete shaving of her head if a woman entered a monastery. Even after tonsure, a woman could still live at home, but she had to be somewhat isolated from social life because she needed to focus her energy on prayer, sutra, and reflection.

[3] Melissa McCormick “Japanese Books: From Manuscript to Print” online course offered through HarvardX.

[4] One of the types of Japanese drama theater.

[5]  Koto is a Japanese 13-string citrus

[6] Karmic is the connection that unites people connected in the previous life. These relationships can bring happiness or unhappiness depending on their behavior in previous life.

[7] Buddhism is a religion that focuses on the teachings of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who was enlightened after getting rid of the cycle of rebirth by understanding the connection between desire and suffering

[8] Although both the head of the court painting bureau (edokoro azukari) and the other artists of the bureau were the first to carry out the royal assignments, they did not work exclusively for the imperial house.

  1. Japanese Books: From Manuscript to Print, an online course offered through HarvardX: HUM1.10x.
  2. Fred S. Kleiner “Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History” 15th edition, 2015.
  3. Princeton University Art Museum “Japan Timeline” https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/asian-art/japan/timeline/
  4. Edward Craig “Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Index” 1998, 592

All the pictures are taken from Japanese Books: From Manuscript to Print, an online course offered through HarvardX: HUM1.10x online course.


Author: Heghine Aleksanyan © All rights reserved. 

Translator: Mariam Badalyan

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