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The Aesthetics of Strangeness: Eccentricity and Madness in Early Modern Japan

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Misfits. Oddballs. Bohemians. In Tokugawa Japan? Yes indeed, a veritable plethora of them. The Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867) was hardly the first repressive regime, or the last, to throw nonconformity out the front door only to find it creeping in through the back door, through the window, through cracks in the walls.

The Aesthetics of Strangeness: Eccentricity and Madness in Early Modern Japan, W. Puck Brecher, UNIVERSITY OF HAWAI’I PRESS

Rebellion takes many forms, from revolution to art. Our business is with art. At certain moments in history, “strangeness bursts forth,” writes American Japanologist W. Puck Brecher in this fine study of how and to what effect it does so. In this connection, there is a laugh I would convey to the reader if I knew how. It animates a self-portrait by the artist Okada Beisanjin (1744-1820). He is not widely known — typical of the poets and artists Brecher features and a measure of the credit he deserves for resurrecting them. Beisanjin is a rather disreputable character. (Aren’t they all?) He’s a drinker, and if anyone objects he doesn’t much care. He goes his own way, laughs his own laugh, knows what he knows. His motto: “Having sake, I cannot fail.”

Japan’s ancient and early-modern cultures borrowed heavily from China, but one Chinese personality type that had comparatively little appeal here is the reclusive misfit. China gave him his due, recognizing and reverencing his holiness, wisdom, artistry. Even physical deformity, in China, could confer a kind of awe. “In Japan,” Brecher explains, “deformity had long been viewed as a marker of sin or defilement.” Likewise madness — madness interpreted broadly enough to include social nonconformity. There were exceptions, typified by the ubiquitous blind lute-playing priest, or by Ebisu, the god of commerce, “worshipped as a deformed stranger who had crossed the sea bearing good fortune.” But by and large, in early Japan eccentricity proved madness, and madness was a curse, not a gift.

As the Tokugawa grip tightened on the land, artists and poets whose spirits led them away from the prevailing Confucian rectitude tended to withdraw into themselves. Ancient China provided the role models, and the resulting bunjin culture — characterized by traits startlingly reminiscent in some cases of the modern avant-garde — has a heavily Chinese flavor.

A Japanese prototype, the most famous figure in the book, is the haiku poet Basho (1644-1694). “Ever since I was young” he wrote, “I have been fond of my eccentric ways.” He gave up his samurai status for a life of reclusion, wandering and poetry. His very last poem, composed shortly before his death, seems to sounds a note of despair: “None is traveling/ here along this way but I,/ this autumn evening.” But maybe it is not despair at all. Maybe it’s triumph.

He spawned a school, called Shomon, of disciple-successors in whom Brecher discerns a touch of self-indulgence: “Some earned celebrity … but they did so by converting Basho’s aesthetic strangeness into behavioral strangeness.” One staged his own funeral; another called himself “Master Depravity” and comported himself accordingly. A third “rejected wealth, status, family and possessions, preferring the simple, unencumbered life of a beggar.” To the persistent merciless mockery of the local children he retorted: “Beggar? Madman? How funny! I’m neither of those; I’m a Tengu (a long-nosed mountain goblin), praise Amida (Buddha)!”

It took a painter to make a case for the defense: “From the beginning,” wrote Gion Nankai (1677-1751) in 1726, “the Way of the Sages lay in revering correctness and defending normality. … Those unconventional people living beyond the bounds of common sense appreciate taste all the more, while philistines” — for which read Confucian moralists — “know nothing of it.”

Where the West sought freedom through politics, the premodern East sought it through art, and the paintings reproduced in this book show the degree to which the most eccentric, wayward spirits found it. Okada Beisanjin, already mentioned, celebrated his personal ugliness in three self-portraits — “he is the only known artist impudent enough to depict himself on such a scale,” writes Brecher. I don’t know what he means by “such a scale,” but his impudence is delightfully clear.

We cannot close the subject without at least a mention — a worthy description is impossible — of the “Portrait of Li Tieguai,” circa 1770, by one Soga Shohaku. His technique is to “convert conventional Chinese settings into terrifying landscapes and Daoist sages into monsters.” You certainly wouldn’t want to meet this sage-monster on a lonely road at night — or during the day for that matter. That’s freedom for you, the artist seems to be saying. Take it or leave it.

The reader might wish at times that Brecher had loosened his scholarly rigor just enough to match the mad humor of his subject with a writing style a bit less dry and dustily academic. Perhaps it’s carping to criticize a scholar for being scholarly. Who but a scholar, after all, could unearth these wonderful characters, known for the most part only to connoisseurs, for the delectation of the rest of us?