Tales of Ueda Akinari and his contemporaries


With the advent of postmodernism in Japan from the 1980s, which fostered eclecticism and diverse stylistic practices, interest in the earlier Edo Period (1603-1868) was revived and it subsequently was embraced as a kindred spirit.

Kyoto National Museum’s “Ueda Akinari 200th Memorial Retrospective,” until Aug. 29, pursues the diversity of the Edo Period’s cultural and intellectual life through the remembrance of the author of “Ugetsu Monogatari” (“Tales of Moonlight and Rain”), a popular collection of supernatural tales.

Like the varied artistic and literary circles in which he moved, Ueda Akinari’s (1734-1809) own life was one of heady diversity, though to focus on that fails to yield a deeper understanding of the author’s principal achievement — writing.

Reputedly born to one of Osaka’s women of vice and an unknown father, Ueda was adopted at around age 4 by an oil and paper merchant. He contracted smallpox the following year and his stepfather went to Kagawashi Shrine to pray for his son’s health, receiving a dream oracle that intimated the boy would live to the age of 68. Ueda, in reality, managed to surpass this by eight years.

Portraits in the exhibition by relatively unknown artists such as Ryusetsu (19th century) or Ueda’s acquaintance Koga Bunrei (d. 1839) depict the author as an old man in the stock pose of a seated kneeling position. The deformities of Ueda’s hands, the result of his bout of smallpox, are not painted in any detail, no doubt in reverence to the literary master. Ueda, however, had nothing but praise for realism obtained by sketching from life, as is noted in his 1808 art critical text “Notes Bold Yet Pithy.” Since Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795) had become famous in painting and realistic sketches of nature, Ueda wrote, he dominated painting throughout Kyoto.

In his teens, Ueda learned of the haikai genre of poetry and made his literary debut with a comic genre novel, “Shodo kikimimi sekenzaru” (“A Worldly Monkey Who Hears About Everything at age 33,”) all the while attending to his adoptive family’s merchant business, which he later gave up after it burned down. Following this, Ueda became a physician, sharing his medicinal interest in plants with the Osaka-based scholar and collector Kimura Kenkado (1736-1802). He made trips to Kyoto to engage in intellectual exchange with the haikai poetry circle that centered around the painting and lyric master Yosa Buson (1716-1783), and in 1776 he published “Ugetsu Monogatari” — a first edition of which is featured in the exhibition — which established him as a best-selling author.

His further acute intellectual abilities were engaged in his study and elaboration of Kokugaku (National Learning), an intellectual movement that stressed the purity of Japanese heritage based on the study of native classics. Finding it antagonistic to Japanese-Chinese cultural and intellectual inheritances, however, Ueda tempered his engagement with Kokugaku through his own Sinophile leanings toward Confucianism and the Chinese pastime of using loose-leaf sencha (literally translated to “decocting tea”) for the tea ceremony rather than the matcha powdered leaves that were the basis for chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony.

Indeed, Ueda considered the Japanese tea ceremony a rule-governed superficiality, whereas sencha, he thought, was complicit with spiritual cultivation. His 1794 “Miscellaneous Writings” further popularized the tea practice. A picture by Ueda’s friend Tanomura Chikuden (1777-1835), titled “Rai Sanyo’s Favorite Sencha Utensils” (19th century), which depicts a brazier with a couple of cups at its side, introduces the attraction the pastime held for the author. Ueda also made his own tea utensils, though there are none on display in the present exhibition.

To bring further visual luster to the expected highly literary nature of the show, a final section collates painted works by Ueda’s Kyoto-based associates, such as Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800), who is said to have carved Ueda’s distinctive crab-shaped tombstone, and other such literati luminaries as Ike no Taiga (1723-76). Taiga’s delicately painted sumi ink work “The Pleasures of Fishing” (18th century) is composed entirely of little dots that coalesce into steep mountain scenery — the backdrop for an idealized life spent harmoniously with nature and at a far remove from urban clutter.

The exhibition has a strong biographical tenor of Ueda’s interactions and output; his bodily ills, such as his temporary loss of eyesight at age 57; his late move from Osaka to Kyoto at age 60, which was also the wish of his wife; and then the penning of his final masterpiece, “Tales of Spring Rain (1802).”

While there are several interesting scrolls and elegant inscriptions in Ueda’s hand — such as his calligraphy in various styles, including “Poems in the Style of Heian Period Sumiyoshi Poetry Match” (1802), and his picture/word collaborations with the Shijo School of painting founder Matsumura Goshun (1752-1811) — it is ultimately to his contemporaries we must turn in order to see revelations. The intoxications of Ueda’s art and their aesthetic retrieval remain in the appreciation of his body of written work.

“Ueda Akinari 200th Memorial Retrospective” at the Kyoto National Museum until Aug. 29; admission ¥800; open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (till 8 p.m. on Fri.), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng/index-top.html