TAKEBE AYATARI: A Bunjin Bohemian in Early Modern Japan, by Lawrence E. Marceau. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2004, 370 pp. + xxi pp., 16 color plates, 122 b/w plates. $69.00 (cloth).

Takebe Ayatari (1719-1774), the subject of this detailed and scholarly monograph, enjoyed an unusually varied life. Detected at 20 in a love affair with his brother’s wife, he ran away from both home and the respectable career for which his bushi-bourgeois background might have prepared him.

He moved to Kyoto, set himself up as a haiku master, and devoted himself to printing and publishing his and his disciples’ works.

From there he traveled to Nagasaki where he took up the literati style of painting. Still later, now back in Edo, he began writing novels in the popular yomihon style.

Such independent eclecticism by now had a name. Ayatari was a bunjin. This term indicated, in Louis Frederic’s definition, “an artistic genre formed by scholars who sought to express in their work, aside from their own personalities, a certain poetic sense.” There are other definitions, however.

In addition, the term “bunjin” has never been translated in any convincing manner. In this publication, the author is not satisfied with the usual translation “literati” because, as he points out, this in its Chinese original referred to a specific social class that did not exist in Japan. But then neither did “Bohemian,” a word allowed by the author on his title page.

The bunjin is certainly not congruent with the messy, bearded, sweatered person the term now calls up. Perhaps the catchy alliteration of “Bunjin Bohemian” appealed to the publisher.

Probably the most famous of the bunjin is Yosa Buson, the one who announced himself most firmly free from the restrictions of an established aesthetic orthodoxy.

Though the example for the Japanese bunjin “movement” had come from China and had various reasons and results, it was enough for the Japanese imitators to understand the tradition as a rejection of academic styles. By this the bunjin meant the officially recognized styles of the Kano and Tosa schools. Any other style was considered a more legitimate model, which is why their results are so varied.

Artists sketched from nature, poets jotted in the field, and ikebana bunjin put real spiders in their floral arrangements to spin a new and natural lyricism.

Realism was not the aim. Rather, as the late Cal French has observed:

“Any display of virtuosity in brushwork was disdained, while deliberate blandness and awkwardness were seen as an appropriate lack of affectation. Attempting to express the inner rhythm of nature rather than merely its external appearance, they cultivated individual expression as opposed to the purely technical proficiency that they saw as characterizing the tradition of academic painting.”

Later scholars have identified four resemblances among all bunjin. They were by definition versatile; at the same time they were antagonistic to zoku, a term that can mean the vulgar, the mundane or the overtly commercial; often they held to their individualistic values, even in the face of conflicting social norms; and (it would seem to follow) they displayed a tendency to eremitism — a withdrawal from society, though in some cases this was little more than a matter of fastening more firmly one’s gate.

Ayatari fits all of these definitions and his poems and paintings (quoted and reproduced in full in this study) seem up to all bunjin standards. Yet, he has been more or less neglected. As early as 1850 one critic was complaining that “he has been forgotten, while someone like Buson is remembered.”

In Cal French’s spirited definition of the bunjin (in the complete Kodansha Japan Encyclopedia) he is not mentioned. And the same publication’s unsigned biographical entry merely states that he was “said to be eccentric and to have pursued art for art’s sake, he did not find complete success in any one area.”

After reading this long and full account of Ayatari and his remarkable remains, one is now apt to say that perhaps he did not find complete success in any one area, but this was because he found success in all of them.

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