People around the world are bewitched by Japanese fantasy. From East, Southeast and South Asia to Europe east and west, the United States and Latin America, it is now mostly anime and manga that draw young people to the study of Japan and the Japanese language.
One of the questions I am most frequently asked when I speak abroad about Japanese culture is this: “What is the nature of Japanese fantasy and how do they view realism in their culture?”
To get to the bottom of this, we need to talk aesthetics.
Japanese culture is best understood when approaching it not with the head, but with the eyes, the nose, the tongue — and by osmosis, as it were, through the pores of the skin. Not many people today would have heard of the senkō dokei (incense clock). These are clocks that measure time through the use of incense with different fragrances. When a measure of incense burns out, a different-smelling one begins to burn. Becoming aware of it, we sniff and think, “Ah, it’s 2 o’ clock!”
In other words, our consciousness of the passage of time itself is sensory.
On a broader scale, the concept of shun (seasonality) underpins the Japanese take on reality. While shun is generally associated with foods being in season and our appreciation of them for a limited time, it can apply to all aesthetic phenomena, from the Japanese awareness of the cherry blossom’s fleeting beauty to the color combinations in Japanese fabrics and the dripping glazes on ceramics.
Japanese culture is quintessentially nonrepresentational. It does not attempt to hold a mirror up to nature or society. There is no such thing as “natural” in Japanese art: There are only things that look or feel natural and things that don’t. When we look at Hokusai’s “Great Wave off Kanagawa,” we don’t see a wave that looks “realistic,” such as the ones in representational Western paintings of the sea. We see “essence of wave.” But when we next gaze at the sea, we may well think, “OMG, those waves look just like Hokusai’s!”
Texture is content in Japanese culture. If you want to understand ceramics, go to the soil; if you want to appreciate the Japanese color sense, look at plants. You cannot disconnect nature from your feelings about it at the moment you are observing, touching or experiencing it. Artist Taro Okamoto (1911-96) said, “Geijutsu wa bakuhatsu da” — “Art is explosion” . . . not exposition.
Which brings me to the Western concept underlying modern realism, that which is termed naturalism. As a movement in literature and theater, this overtook Europe in the late 19th century. That was just when Japan had opened up to the West, its people eager to absorb every aspect of Western culture in a policy of “enlightenment and civilization.”
Naturalism, too, was absorbed and adopted. But rather than its proponents turning a mirror to nature, they turned the mirror onto themselves; and the movement in Japan soon turned inward, ruled by an ultra-subjectivity infused with the emotionally enhanced experiences of the writer.
The well-made Japanese play never became a part of the mainstream Japanese theatrical tradition because playwrights naturally lacked the sense of structural objectivity necessary to create naturalistic theater. With very few exceptions, Japanese plays written by major playwrights have featured spectacle and stylized theatricality over the logical progression of plot.
All of this may seem a circuitous way to get to the point of fantasy. But this is precisely the pivot on which Japanese fantasy revolves: That the conceiving of the real world in art comes entirely from the sensing of nature together in the era in which we live.
In the classic novel, “Night on the Milky Way Train” by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), Giovanni and Campanella, traveling through the cosmos on the celestial railway, meet up with a bizarre character named Prof. Vulcanillo. (This section of the novel is not found in most editions; Kenji decided that, on balance, it didn’t fit in.) Prof. Vulcanillo shows the two boys a map of the world that is 2,000 years old. He tells them that this is what the world looked like to people 2,000 years ago. This was their world. So, this is the reality of that time. This was the world then, for them. That’s all there was. Knowledge is what is sensed in common and depicted in art.
Animals often appear in Japanese anime, manga and folk tales. But compare these with characters created by Disney: The latter are surrogate humans; they can speak with Brooklyn accents; they have our foibles; they are us in animal skins. Japanese animals do not represent humans. They have souls of their own and exist on an equal footing with humans, or often on a higher plane of sensitivity to the world. To the outside eye, they may appear to be creatures of human fantasy. But, in actuality, they have a life of their own in their own real realm.
When architect Bruno Taut (1880-1938) “discovered” the Katsura Detached Palace in Kyoto as the epitome of Japanese aesthetics, it surprised the Japanese as much as it did the outside world. Why? Didn’t they know about their own tradition and appreciate it? Of course they did. But the principles of proportionality, spatial design, asymmetry and the “absolutely imperfect” depiction of nature that were so lauded by Taut were the very same ones they lived with in their own traditional homes and in the temples and gardens they frequented.
The Western epitome of aesthetic perfection is seen, for instance, in Versailles, in our classic (secular) temples and grand mansions. We ordinary mortals don’t live in homes like that — at least I know I don’t. We look up to our temples of art. The Japanese, living among their temples, didn’t see the aesthetic of simple elegance as anything different from what was around them.
Again, a nonrepresentational portrayal of nature and space becomes the only realism; mundane understatement, not grandiose overstatement, the only classic.
Consider that most refined symbol of Japanese aesthetics, the tea ceremony. All you need is a pot or cauldron, some hot water, powdered tea, a few simple wooden implements and you have it. The working principles are paucity and utter simplicity. Despite what some tea masters would have us believe, anyone can perform a tea ceremony so long as they possess its spirit and there is someone present to drink the tea and feel that spirit. Again, it is shared senses of the visual, the olfactory and, in this case, the stimulation of taste that combine to suggest a real moment of “ordinary” life.
The subjectivity of Japanese art is its entirety. That’s why naturalism never became a mainstream current here. The Japanese fashion everything: They twist chopsticks; they wrap the trunks of trees and rocks; they redesign the shape of ponds and waterfalls to make them look realer than real. They hold a long and carefully rippled mirror up to nature.
It is no wonder that the world has been astounded by anime, manga and all varieties of Japanese presentational design. All Japanese culture is fantasy. A fantasy that is as real as it gets.
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