Art

The art of play: Japan's history of fun

by Jeff Michael Hammond

Contributing Writer

The ancient Greek poet Ovid wrote that how we play reveals the kind of people we are. One wonders how he would have viewed the Japanese in days of old, who turned play into an art form.

“Styles of Play: The History of Merrymaking in Art” at the Suntory Museum of Art delves into various amusements, with exhibits ranging from the Muromachi Period (1392-1573) to the Edo Period (1603-1868). It brings together over 100 exhibits, including paintings and other artworks depicting the entertainments of the day, as well as some original objects that were used for play.

People enjoying different types of recreation throughout the year was a popular theme of the classic Yamato-e style of Japanese painting. “Customs Month by Month,” an Edo Period six-panel folding screen, for example, includes scenes of people enjoying cherry blossoms in spring, and dancing at a summer festival.

Displayed early in the exhibition is a football-like ball made of deer hide. Used in a game called kemari, it would have been kicked up into the air by the players for as long as possible. In one scene from an album of images illustrating Murasaki Shikibu’s famous “Tale of Genji,” a group of court officials are engrossed in the game, as a noblewoman secretly watches them from behind a bamboo screen. The album was painted by Sumiyoshi Jyokei and inscribed by Sono Motoyoshi in the 17th century.

Japan adopted the board game go from China, and a particularly impressive Edo Period go board is included in the exhibition. Lavishly decorated with maki-e lacquer, it sports a design of Mount Horai with crane, bamboo and pine tree motifs in black and gold. In China, proficiency in calligraphy, ink painting, music and go were considered an essential part of a cultured life and came to be known as the “four arts.” One section of the exhibition is dedicated to pictures, many from China, depicting gentlemen pursuing these activities.

An example of the four arts theme taken up by painters in Japan is the 17th-century work by Kaiho Yusho. In Japanese four arts works, however, the Chinese qin, a type of zither, was replaced by the shamisen, while go, despite its popularity, was eventually superseded by depictions of people playing the board game sugoroku.

Sugoroku derives from backgammon, which originated in Egypt and spread to Europe and then Asia. A fine example of an Edo Period sugoroku board, in black and gold maki-e, complete with a pair of dice and dice holder is also on display.

Card games, originally introduced from Portugal, were another popular pastime from the mid-16th century and on. Early cards made in Japan were based on European designs but were soon supplemented, or even supplanted, by Japanese motifs. Over time, certain types of decks were established, such as the popular Unsun deck, believed to be named after the Portuguese for “one” and “highest score.”

No examination of play in Japan would be complete without a look at the world of the pleasure quarters, and the exhibition dedicates a section to works on this popular theme. Many of the “House of Pleasure” paintings of the Edo period depict in detail the building compounds where courtesans lived and worked, and show them entertaining their customers with music, card games and other amusements. However, in the 17th century pair of folding screens, “Amusements of Women” we are privy to when the women are alone and can enjoy their own forms of relaxation — cooling their feet in some kind of waterway that runs through the courtyard and even embracing each other, hinting at true love behind the trade in intimacy.

“Styles of Play” also takes a look at various outdoor pursuits and includes numerous images of archery, horse racing, people dancing in the streets and, of course, matsuri (festivals).

“Scenes Along the Riverside at Shijo, Kyoto,” a 17th century pair of folding screens, shows people enjoying musical and dance performances. Today people eat and drink along the banks of the Kamo River depicted in this work, which is a designated important cultural property, rather than enjoy entertainment, but the custom of cooling off there and enjoying the summer evenings continues.

“Styles of Play: The History of Merrymaking in Art” at the Suntory Museum of Art runs until Aug. 18; ¥1,300. For more information, visit www.suntory.com/sma.

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