They think they're people

Want to see that famous old Japanese scroll with the frogs and rabbits and things acting like foolish, puny hu-mans and foreshadowing modern manga? Go here, then click on the little squares in the top frame to scroll. (Note: you're supposed to start at the far right and proceed to the far left.)

This is actually only part 甲 ("A") of the scroll, which is known as 鳥獣人物戯画 (choujuujinbutsugiga, or "picture of bird and beast characters gambolling"). Part 甲 is apparently the best part, though. It's said to have been drawn by a Buddhist monk called 鳥羽僧正覚猷, Tobasoujou Kakuyuu, or "High Priest Bird Wing, a.k.a. Draws Enlightenment", although there's no conclusive proof for this claim.

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Oh, cool. So, what's meant to be going on in the pictures?

The leftmost image seems to be missing, incidentally.


If you feel you're missing out on the authentic scroll experience by viewing this as a series of disconnected images, I've stitched them together into a single 16350x425 pixel image.


That's amazing, tim.


It is indeed! Thanks!

As for what they're doing, a lot of it is pretty mysterious to me (beyond "carrying something somewhere").

Going from right to left, I see rabbits helping a monkey take a bath (that ladle thing is for pouring water over you), a rabbit riding a deer like a horse as a monkey splashes it, a bunch of animals watching a rabbit compete in an archery competition (they're standing dangerously close to the target, too -- must be a lot of trust there), other animals waiting to take their turn, other animals bringing what looks like food and drink and maybe a shamisen to the competition, a couple of higher-class monkeys receiving a deer, a boar also getting the horse treatment, a rabbit carrying something mysterious wrapped up, a monkey running away and being pursued after having apparently knocked over (or killed? but that would seem a bit extreme for this piece) a frog, frogs dancing and other higher-class animals enjoying the show, frogs and rabbits sumo wrestling while their friends cheer them on, more food-carrying, a frog being venerated as a buddha, and more higher-class animals being waited on. The one at the far left with a fur is a bit gruesome.


Yeah, that's pretty much what I had.

The expression on the monkey-pursuing rabbit's face isn't what I'd expect from someone trying to avenge a murder, so the frog's probably OK.

Are those swords that the dancing frogs are holding? What can you tell me about those black hats some of them are wearing? (I've seen them before, but it's difficult to look up costume details when you don't know the name.)

What's the date of this scroll, anyway?


I'm not an expert on the black hats, but I know they were called eboshi or eboushi (烏帽子), and they were the standard headgear by Heian times. I guess there were different versions for different occasions. The rabbit on the far left looks like he's wearing something a little different, a kanmuri 冠, which had a smaller actual cap part, but a kind of crosspiece and a big part sticking out back and then a "tail" behind that.

Since there's no definite proof of exactly who drew it (I think most people accept that Kakuyuu drew this part, at least, though), it's hard to say how old it is, but Kakuyuu lived from about the middle of the 11th century to the middle of the 12th, which would make it Heian period art.


Ah, right. I thought the hats were Heian (seen them in illustrations of the Genji, etc.), but for some reason I assumed the scroll was more recent.


Really nice job stitching it all together. I wonder what significance there might be behind the choices of animals also.


(Thank you. It was easier than I expected - they must have scanned it in such a way as to keep the horizontal very consistant, and most places it lined up very neatly. A couple of times I got a better result by trimming the end of the top image. The seams are mostly only noticeable where there's a difference in lighting - I'm sure a professional could have fixed that easily enough, but I couldn't think of a good way to do it.)

I wonder about the choice of animals myself. Frogs and rabbits seem to be mostly lower class types, while monkeys and foxes are more likely priests and nobles (i.e. wearing clothes). But then there's that frog buddha. I wish I knew more about Heian costume, which might reveal something about their particular stations in life.

If I had the Japanese, this looks like it would be the page to refer to on eboshi and kanmuri.


I found something on the subject here - I'll quote the part about this scroll:

Alongside the varied output of the court painters, the painter-monks of the great monasteries also produced illustrated scrolls on both Buddhist and secular themes. The most famous are the four Choju-giga scrolls (Animal Caricatures) preserved since the thirteenth century in the Kozan-ji temple, in the mountains northwest of Kyoto. These ink outline drawings have no unity of either subject or style. Moreover, in the absence of any accompanying text, it becomes difficult to grasp the meaning of each scene and to connect the four scrolls as a whole. Several different interpretations have accordingly been proposed for them.

The first scroll, consisting of a long sequence of compositions, represents the antics of monkeys, rabbits and frogs parodying human actions--swimming, practising archery, horseback riding and wrestling. (illustration page 84) In all these contests it is invariably the underdog who The rabbits, having beaten the monkeys at swimming, are in turn outwrestled by the frogs. Some art historians regard these scenes as social satire alluding to the decline of the aristocracy after the rise of the warrior class. The end of the first scroll is devoted to a religious ceremony conducted by a monkey dressed as a Buddhist dignitary, solemnly praying before a statue of the Buddha in the guise of a frog seated on a lotus leaf. This is plainly an ironical "dig" at the clerics of the day. In this first scroll, full of movement and amusing touches, the frolicking animals are vividly rendered with deft and telling strokes of the brush--always in ink.


The style of the drawing and details of the costumes worn by the humanized animals warrant us in assigning the first two scrolls to the second quarter of the twelfth century--a date still within the lifetime of the monk Kakuyu (I053-II40), better known as Toba-sojo, to whom tradition has always attributed the four Kozan-ji scrolls, although there is no positive proof in support of it.

I'm not sure I'm convinced of this "underdog" interpretation - it's not really clear to me that the rabbits are beating the monkeys swimming, or even that they're competing. Of course, there's probably a lot of subtelties that aren't apparent to me. I'm not sure who's winning the archery contest, either.

These horses look like they might be from the second scroll, going by the description in the first link.

Seems if you go to this "garden of fine art" you can see a replica of the scroll set into an exterior wall.

This octopus-samurai by Hokusai doesn't have anything to do with the scroll, but it is really weird. From here.

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