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Japanese Dreams

Delve into the magical world of dreams
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Japanese Dreams

Vanessa Tothill
24th Aug 2018
By Vanessa Tothill

Recently, I have come across three pieces in the Japanese Collection at Maidstone Museum that are linked to dreams.

Craftsmen took inspiration from tales linked to dreams and dreamers when they designed ‘sagemono’ –items such as containers and pouches that were suspended from the belt with the help of toggles and cords. The inro is a lozenge-shaped container that is divided into compartments or cases, and held together by a cord that threads through runners on either side. The inro was suspended from the belt sash by this cord and held in place with a netsuke toggle of carved ivory or wood. The majority of inro were made from lacquer and were used to store medicine and tobacco.

An inro design at Maidstone Museum depicts Rosei (Ch. Lu Sheng) reclining on a bed in the shade of a tree. In the original 8th Century Chinese tale, Lu Sheng leaves his village in search of an illustrious career in the civil service. This tale inspired the 15th Century Japanese Noh play “Kantan,” and was modified to reflect the Buddhist philosophy of Noh Theatre’s elite warrior audience.

In the Noh drama, Rosei falls asleep at an inn while waiting for his meal and dreams that he is visited by a grand entourage that invites him to become the emperor. When the innkeeper awakens him, Rosei immediately realizes that his fifty-year reign as emperor was only a vain dream. Rosei’s awakening is comparable to a spiritual awakening or enlightenment that recognizes the transience of human life and the vanity of human ambition. Rosei abandons his dream of self-advancement and returns to his village.

The design of the inro follows an artistic convention of depicting Rosei’s face through a semi-transparent fan.

The iridescent shell inlay (aogai) creates a veil that reminds the viewer of the altered state of the dreamer and the insubstantial nature of his dream.

On the reverse, Rosei’s dream is depicted as a ghostly procession of servants carrying ceremonial umbrellas and palanquins that can only be glimpsed when the object is turned in the light.

This subtle effect is known as ‘yamimaki-e’ (dark sprinkled picture), and involved black or brown lacquer powder being sprinkled onto a wet black lacquer ground. The lacquer artist, Jokasai (Yamada Joka, ca. 1775-1850) used this technique to create dark silhouettes against a waxy black ground.

The dreamer Rosei was also engraved on the metal plates of ‘kagamibuta’ toggles. Kagamibuta (mirror lids) were a type of netsuke that secured the inro, usually a tobacco pouch, to the wearer’s belt.  In the design by metal engraver Minkoku (c. 1833-1909), the sleeping man’s face has been engraved into the silver leaf inlay that constitutes Rosei’s fan.

In the background, barely visible, is Rosei’s dream pricked out using a needle-like awl in a technique called hari-ishime.

Kagamibuta specialist, Dieuwke Eijer has noted that the design of Rosei asleep behind his uchiwa fan may have been copied from a work attributed to the painter Hanabusa Itcho. This composition is illustrated in the woodblock printed book titled Wakan meiga en that was published circa 1750. [Waseda University, Book Database, Tokyo:].

It was not unusual for lacquer and metal craftsmen to model their designs after the illustrations found in contemporary books or works by other artists. For example, Minkoku’s design emulates the work of engraver Shuraku (1830-1894) who also depicted the dreaming Rosei on his kagamibuta.

Sometimes Rosei imagery was combined with references to the mythical baku. According to legend, the baku had the trunk of an elephant, the curling mane of a lion and the claws of a tiger. The baku was said to devour dreams and was worn as an amulet as a preventative against nightmares. Also in the collection at Maidstone Museum, there is a round, ivory manju-style netsuke toggle that has been pierced and carved with the design of a baku.

The lavish materials used by craftsmen to realize their designs expressed the wealth and status of the stylish owner of the inro or netsuke. These objects also reveal Edo-period (1600-1868) cultural attitudes toward the ephemeral nature of the dream.