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Here and There :

Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries and museums around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest. The writer claims no art expertise, just a subjective viewpoint acquired over many years' residence in Japan.

Medieval Manga in Midtown: The Choju-Giga at the Suntory Museum
Alan Gleason
Three sections of the Choju-Jinbutsu-Giga emaki (Kou kan), National Treasure, Heian period, Kosan-ji Temple
The Choju-Jinbutsu-Giga (literally "Caricatures of Animals and Humans"), or Choju-Giga for short, is frequently described as the first manga. That makes manga a hoary tradition indeed, since the four ten-meter scrolls that make up the set date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Housed at the Kosanji temple in Kyoto, the scrolls are a well-loved National Treasure, but rarely are the originals on public display. Until December 16, Tokyo manga buffs will want to edify and entertain themselves by beating a path down to Roppongi to see the originals, as well as numerous copies, fragments and homages, in the exhibition devoted to the Choju-Giga at the Suntory Museum of Art.

What makes the Choju-Giga so beloved is the timeless humor of its depictions of various animals frolicking in extremely human fashion. Frogs, rabbits, monkeys and foxes engage in sumo bouts, swimming races, archery contests, and even Buddhist prayer services. Some are in priestly or court noble garb, lending a gently satirical edge to the spectacle. Most of the mangaesque action is found on the first of the four scrolls; the others feature somewhat more prosaic images of animals (horses, hens, cows, dogs) behaving like normal animals, or realistically portrayed human figures. Throughout, the economical lines of the sumi ink brushwork are exquisite. Some of the scrolls are drawn with a meticulous hand, while others are much sketchier, and it is obvious that more than one artist was responsible. No one knows who they were; legend attributes all four scrolls to a single Buddhist priest, but scholars suspect they are the work of a number of Imperial Court painters letting off steam. Further muddying the waters is the fact that over the centuries the scrolls have been cut up and reassembled in different sequences. One of the most intriguing features of the Suntory exhibit is its painstaking reconstruction, mainly from later replicas, of what the original scrolls must have looked like.

One of Tokyo's better-known corporate museums, the Suntory has been around since 1961. Earlier this year it re-opened in spanking new quarters that occupy two floors of Tokyo Midtown, the latest extravagant skyscraper-and-shops complex to pop up on the city's skyline. The museum is touted as the final third of a "Roppongi Art Triangle" that includes the equally new National Art Center (see the 1 April 2007 edition of Here and There) and the only slightly older Mori Art Museum atop Midtown's rival highrise down the street, Roppongi Hills. Given Roppongi's seedy reputation as a tenderloin for foreigners on the prowl, that's quite a cultural trifecta for the neighborhood.

Smaller and with a longer track record than the other points on the triangle, the Suntory tends to feature traditional Japanese arts and crafts, often from its own impressive 3,000-piece collection, so the Choju-Giga is a good fit, and the museum has done a tasteful and extremely thorough job of displaying and explaining it.

Three sections of the Choju-Jinbutsu-Giga emaki (Kou kan), National Treasure, Heian period, Kosan-ji Temple
Three sections of the Choju-Jinbutsu-Giga emaki (Kou kan), National Treasure, Heian period, Kosan-ji Temple
Three sections of the Choju-Jinbutsu-Giga emaki (Kou kan),
National Treasure, Heian period, Kosan-ji Temple

(Images courtesy of the Suntory Museum of Art. Reproduction without permission is expressly prohibited.)
Suntory Museum of Art
Tokyo Midtown Gardenside
3F, 9-7-4 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo / Phone: 03-3479-8600
Open Sunday, Monday and holidays 10-6, Wednesday to Saturday 10-8
(Closed Tuesday, New Year's Day, and during exhibition preparation periods)
Transportation: 1 minute walk from Roppongi station on the Oedo Subway Line or 3 minutes walk from Nogizaka station on the Chiyoda Subway Line
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Alan Gleason
Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for 22 years. In addition to writing about the Japanese art scene he has edited and translated works on Japanese theater (from kabuki to the avant-garde) and music (both traditional and contemporary).
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