Monday, December 5, 2016

Jippensha Ikku and the Hizakurige

I have written a post already on one comic within Dartmouth's digital collections.  When confronted with the task of writing another post, one of the most difficult tasks, of course, is deciding what to write about.

It has been said (by me) that inspiration is the writer's currency.  Or maybe it's more like energy.  It's a delicious sandwich, that enriches the writer with the nutrients necessary to build literary structures.  As such, if I'm to write anything I must search high and low for the perfect object, that unique artifact that can act as Mona Lisa to my da Vince.  Such inspiration can be rare, and the pursuit of such a thing can be daunting in its own right.  I scroll down four entries on the library digital collections page.  Perfect.

The Tokaidochu Hizakurige, translated to A Shank's Mare Tour of the Tokaido, is a picaresque novel told in twelve parts.  It was written by Shigeta Sadakazu under the pen name Ikku Jippensha and has been called "the most humorous and entertaining book in the Japanese language."  An impressive claim, perhaps outdated, but nonetheless- pretty good.  It tells the tale of two travelers, Yajirobi and Kitahachi, as they make pilgrimage from Edo (now called Tokyo) to Kyoto along the Tokaido, the primary road between those places, and the subject of much attention from artists of the time.  While the Hizakurige is a comic novel, it also functions as travel guide to those who would attempt the trek.

Sadakazu was a prolific writer during the Edo period, producing a minimum of twenty novels per year between 1795 and 1801.  Despite the abundance of his work, relatively little is known of him.  He lived in Edo primarily, in the service of samurai.  Several stories exist detailing his eccentricities, although they are largely considered to be apocryphal.  According to one account, Sadakazu instructed his pupils to, upon his death, cremate him along with several mysterious packets.  Supposedly these packets were filled with fireworks, which reacted as one would expect when placed in the fire.

Like their creator, the two main characters of the hizakurige got up to all manner of mischief.  Yaji and Kita, as they are often called, can easily be compared to well-known picaresque duos in the west, like Don Quijote and Sancho Panza or Huck Finn and Jim.  W.G. Aston, a scholar of Japanese
linguistics and history, compared them to Bottom the weaver and Falstaff from the works of Shakespeare.  "Prove it," you say.  "How could any characters compete with the beloved Don Quijote and Sancho Panza," you say.  Allow me to give you some examples.

In one story Yaji and Kita come to a river to find two blind men in discussion.  One man agrees to carry the other across, and our two heroes decide to take advantage of this agreement for their own benefit.  Yaji is able to deceive the man and substitute himself, making it across the river dry.  However, when Kita attempts to do the same he is discovered and thrown into the river midway.

In another story the two come across a medium on the road.  She gives Yaji a message from his deceased wife which frightens him terribly.  However, he is further terrified when the medium proposes that the spirit pay him regular friendly visits.

What time and place could produce such characters, you ask?  Allow me to describe it briefly.  The Edo period, defined by the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, lasted from 1603 to 1868.  This was the last feudal military government of Japan, which ended with the consolidation of power by Emperor Meiji, a process known appropriately as the Meiji Restoration.  The Tokugawa Shogunate was a feudal government, and as such Japanese society possessed a clearly stratified social structure during the period of its influence.  The return to imperial power began the steps to modernity, and this shift to a modern, metropolitan mindset can be seen in the sense of superiority that Yaji and Kita feel toward the rural countrymen that they meet throughout their travels.

The sample within our collection depicts the journey from Edo to Hamamatsu on one side, and Hamamatsu to Osaka on the other.  It's illustrated by Tamenobu Fujikawa in the ukiyo-e style, a style popular from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.  The famed Great Wave of Kanagawa is also in this style.  This style would later be instrumental in Japonism, the influence of the Japanese aesthetic which would inspire many of the early impressionists.  These include Dega, Manet, and Monet, and later van Gogh, who collected a large number of pieces in this style.  It would later impact the development of art nouveau, through the likes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec among others. 

The famous Utagawa Hiroshige, considered the last great master of the ukiyo-e style, was similarly inspired by the Tokaido.  It's featured in a number of his works, including The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido, a work devoted to it in its entirety.

Particularly noticeable within the works of Hiroshige, and other ukiyo-e artists, are the striking landscapes which seem to capture the breathless life of distant natural beauty.
Fujikawa's images juxtapose the jocular content of the Hizakurige.  Without being told, one might not guess the nature of the story at all.  That the two can co-exist, the gently sloping hills and swaying grasses, and the buffoonish Yajirobi and Kitahachi, perhaps reveals insight into the strange holism of our world.

More information on Jippensha Ikku can be found in A History of Japanese Literature by W.G. Aston.  Our physical copy of the Tokaidochu Hizakurige can be found in Rauner's Special Collections.

Written by Kevin Warstadt

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