How will the experience of the recent natural disasters impact on the work of Japan’s artists? It’s a question that is playing on the minds of many observers of the art world here these days, and it’s a question that is somewhat answered — at least by way of historical parallel — in a show currently under way at the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku.

A little over a 150 years ago, at about 10 p.m. on the night of Nov. 11, 1855, the million-plus inhabitants of Edo (present-day Tokyo) were shaken from their sleep by an earthquake now thought to have been magnitude 6.9. With an epicenter directly below the city — a chilling reminder that there is historical precedent for the most feared quake scenario today — it unleashed massive destruction. More than 4,300 lost their lives and more than 10,000 saw their houses collapse or burn in the fires that followed the jolt. One of the latter was an artist named Kano Kazunobu, who was then in his 39th year.

Kazunobu wasn’t particularly famous at the time. There is even reason to doubt the legitimacy of his claim to the famous “Kano” name, which indicates his membership of the nation’s most esteemed school of painters (he doesn’t seem to have gone through the usual apprentice system). But at the time of the quake, this antique dealer’s son from Honjo Hayashimachi in Edo (present-day Sumida Ward) had secured what would have been a dream job for any artist: a massive, 100-painting commission that is estimated to have been worth ¥100 million at today’s values.

A year earlier, in 1854, the head priest at the Genkoin Temple (in present-day Shibakoen, Tokyo) had asked Kazunobu to create a series of 100 scrolls depicting the lives of the “500 arhats.” These were the most dedicated disciples of Buddha — the ones who had gathered at the First Buddhist Council, held around 543 BCE in what is now the city of Rajgir, India, in order to preserve the teachings of their recently departed master.

Depictions of the arhats were popular at Japanese temples in the mid 19th century. Their presence in paintings or sculptures would add an educational element to entertaining depictions of everyday Edo life. Arhats could be seen studying the scripture or floating above the town, protecting those who were pious and punishing those who were not.

Needless to say, Kazunobu’s experience of the earthquake of 1855 provided him with graphic motifs for his depictions of the fates of those who lacked piety. If it was fire and brimstone that was called for, then he had personal experience on which to draw.

A change is evident around the 20th of Kazunobu’s scrolls, which is in the third room at the current exhibition, “The Five Hundred Arhats by Kano Kazunobu,” at Edo-Tokyo Museum — a show that curator Yuji Yamashita says is the first in living memory to showcase all 100 of the scrolls, which are now in the care of the Zojoji Temple in Shibakoen, Tokyo.

Scrolls one to 20 present what might be called the private lives of the arhats. They can be seen reading scriptures together, debating the scriptures and tutoring youthful monks. Yamashita explains that some of the references in these scrolls, such as images of the arhats bathing, cutting toenails and shaving, indicate Kazunobu’s close study of earlier depictions of arhats by Southern Song Dynasty painters and others.

From scroll 21, however, the arhats emerge from their idyllic domain, and really go to work. Their first stop is hell.

Buddhism teaches that, upon death, humans are reborn into one of six different realms: hell, hungry ghosts, animals, asuras (angry spirits), devas (unenlightened gods) or humans.

Kazunobu’s images of hell are frightening in their detail. In one, a demon stokes a fire that heats a giant cauldron in which numerous unfortunates boil. They desperately reach up to grasp the staff of a benevolent arhat hovering above.

In another, dragons direct their fiery breath at townsfolk while more kindly arhats send gusts of wind to protect them. Yet another shows arhats sending down shafts of light — heat beams, apparently — that melt a frozen pond that traps a teeth-chattering group of the damned.

Looking at these scrolls now, it is easy to see parallels with the kind of suffering that victims of the 1855 earthquake would have endured. Kazunobu would have known that his audience at the time would have its own memories of those experiences. And so in order to achieve the pictures’ didactic objectives — “Stray from Buddhist teachings and this is how you’ll be punished!” — all he would have had to do was provide enough visual clues to trigger images of the horrors imprinted in his viewers’ minds.

That said, curator Yamashita sees in these same images evidence of other influences, too. Kazunobu’s renderings of people plunging into red molten pools have parallels with the renowned “Hell Scrolls” of the Heian Period (794-1185), he says.

Where there can be no doubt as to the influence of the 1855 quake is in scrolls 81 and 82. These two images, which form the beginning of a set of works on “the seven misfortunes,” depict earthquakes. Kazunobu shows in minute detail the broken pillars of wooden houses lying crumpled under collapsed and burning roofs. Some people appear to be trapped while others crawl away in desperation. The arhats, floating above as always, try to extinguish the flames with more gusts of heavenly wind and also try to pull the victims to safety.

The next pair of scrolls depicts disastrous floods, which, Yamashita explains, were probably influenced by a typhoon that struck Edo in 1856 (although the 1855 quake is known to have triggered a tsunami). With only the roofs of buildings visible above roiling seas, and people clinging desperately to them and also to the tops of trees, contemporary viewers will of course recognize similarities with the television images of the March 11 tsunami.

Like Kazunobu’s depictions of the other five misfortunes, these quake pictures include hints of didacticism. In one of the images of flooding, a woman can be seen apparently riding the waves as she clasps her hands in fervent prayer. A beam of light shining down on her from the Kannon Bodhisattva indicates that she will be saved.

Salvation awaits the pious, Kazunobu’s brush insists. That said, it is clear from his attention to apparently unessential details in the scrolls — arhats scratching themselves, yawning and joking with each other, and also the extraordinary vividness of the depictions of calamity — that he was interested in creating images that did not just convey a message, but were in themselves humorous, entertaining, exciting and sometimes even hair-raising.

In that way, they probably represent not only the 19th-century equivalent of modern visual art, but mass entertainment, too. Rest assured that there will be blockbuster films made that seek to recreate the horrors of the recent tsunami in the same way that Kazunobu’s paintings did the horrors of 1855.

And of course, now that the connection between visual art and religion has been all but severed, it’s unlikely that contemporary artists will pursue the same kind of overt didacticism that Kazunobu achieved. Perhaps they will try for more subtle ethical messages? Or will they tinge their work with more political tones? Only time will tell.

“The Five Hundred Arhats by Kano Kazunobu” at the Edo-Tokyo Museum runs till July 3; admission ¥1,300; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., closed Monday. For more information, visit www.edo-tokyo-museum.or.jp

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