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Saru no sōshi ('Illustrated Tale of Monkeys'), a handscroll painting

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Height: 310.000 mm
Length: 13294.000 mm

Bequeathed by Sir A.W. Franks

Asia JA JP 59 (1902.6-6.01)

    Saru no sōshi ('Illustrated Tale of Monkeys'), a handscroll painting

    Japan
    Muromachi / Momoyama period, AD 1560-70

    A sixteenth-century satire on contemporary manners

    Although some of the sections are missing, this long Japanese handscroll is the only known text of this tale. It belongs to a group of works called irui-mono, stories acted out by animals such as rats, foxes and cranes. This tale tells of the entertainment of Yoshinari Yasaburo of Mount Hiei by his prospective father-in-law, Prince Shizubane of the Hie shrine.

    The characters all appear as monkeys, with the illustrations acting as a detailed and witty satire on the manners of the time. Among the surviving sections there are vivid scenes of feasting and of a Tea Ceremony. There is also the earliest known illustration of a renga poetry meeting, where poets, often amateurs, took it in turn to compose a short poem linked to the one before, finally making one long poem. The writer of the text devotes eighty or so lines to the founding of the Hie shrine, and seems to have intended the work as a serious history as well as a satire.

    Much of the satire is aimed at a group of temples centred around Enryaku-ji on Mt Hiei, which overlooks Kyoto. Over several centuries, the monks of Mt Hiei had grown in power and luxury, and to protect their property they even kept armies of soldier-monks who often created riots in the streets of Kyoto. In 1571 the Hie shrine, which had strong connections with Enryaku-ji, was destroyed and most of the inmates massacred by the warlord Oda Nobunaga, who saw the monks as rivals in power. This scroll was probably painted shortly before that event.

    L. Smith, V. Harris and T. Clark, Japanese art: masterpieces in (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)

    I. Hirayama and T. Kobayashi (eds.), Hizō Nihon bijutsu taikan-1, vol. 2 (Tokyo, Kodansha, 1992)