The Great Quest of Emakimono

Rendering the depth of Japanese life to a simple flat picture plane

Tales of Genji, image source:

Closely inter-related is the problem of how emakimono could be used as a vehicle for artistic growth within the field of painting. In the way the artists chose to solve these problems we can observe how emakimono contributed to the development of yamato-e.

Emakimono is a long painted hand scroll of silk or paper. The viewer is actively involved in the reading process. They unroll the scroll horizontally to the left revealing new images or script and view each event for a contemplative duration. Most emakimono contain text, or kotobagaki, which identify or complement the pictures. The content of the Japanese handscroll is closely related to the social and political climates of the time. Emakimono were owned by the elite in religion or society, monks and those of the Imperial Courts. Some of the first have been described as peerless in their luxury.

Genji monogatari: Miotsukushi, centre detail of left screen of a pair of sixfold screens by Sōtatsu, colour on gold-leafed paper; in the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo.

A great example of emakimono popularity is The Tale of Genji. It was painted for the ladies of nobility who found great self-worth in their comprehension of painting. Being educated and knowledgeable was a matter of status. With the ability to comprehend text, those of the elite acquired a love of literature and emakimono respectively.

With its origins in China, the Japanese adapted the art form from their love of picture-stories. It flourished in the Heian and Kamakura periods but found a slow decline toward the end of the sixteenth century along with poetry. It has come to be known as one of the greatest formats for Japanese painting yamato-e.

There was something of a decline, probably due to the development of the woodblock printed book which preserved the balance of script or text and pictorial images. The illustrated book, manga, is very popular in Japan today.

In order for emakimono to present a monastic or contemplative function, the intended message needs to be communicated to the viewer. This requires the viewer to have a comprehensive ability due to the general nature of a handscroll. Originally, emakimono divided text and illustration horizontally as in the ‘Ingakyo Sutra Scroll.’ This layout dates back to the T’ang Dynasty in the west of China and was initially to appeal to a wide audience.

Scene from The Illustrated Sutra of Past and Present Karma; Matsunaga Version), late 13th century, ink and colour on paper, source:

As a scroll is read in sections, it posed an issue of ease of flow and comprehension. The Japanese read from right to left and had an intrinsic desire to present continuous movement. This was solved by creating a scene-like structure, still flowing from right to left, continuity. Sections of text between the illustrations described what was to come next. The script used to present the text was an attempt to make scroll reading a more elite and exclusive art.

The text is written in formal Chinese kanji, rather than Japanese kana. The ‘Hell Scrolls’ are an excellent example of the combination of script and illustration. Before each painting, there is a passage of prayer identifying the following hell depicted in pictures. By reading the text, the spectator was engaging in an act which was believed would prevent them from entering the scenes. Here we see the contemplative and monastic function come to play. The irony is that the audience were mainly monks and were already on the path to enlightenment. An underlying concept is that emakimono were used as a way of distinguishing class.

Excerpt of Hell Scroll, colour on paper, Heian period, 12th century, Nara National Museum, image source:

The Hell scrolls are not sequenced to convey a continuous narrative — each picture represents a different hell.

A primary use for emakimono was to preserve history and legend. A narrative form was chosen to present this function. A need developed for a continuity device to link or separate scenes to communicate the series of events. Colour and line were the chosen to direct the viewer’s gaze from right to left, just as with a written text.

In the Tenjin scrolls, the colour brown is used to separate scenes but also link them by being constantly repeated throughout in a zig-zag motion. Colour used in this way gives a visual instruction to view from right to left as with Eastern literature. This allowed the uneducated to also engage in the act of contemplation within a temple or public showing.

Three excerpts from The Legend of Gisho, Kyoto Museum, image source:

The Legend of Gisho scrolls encapsulate directionality with linear motions. The sea is presented by repeated rhythmic lines to generate a trajectory of warm colours and waves resulting in arrow-like arrangements. Both space and structure are acting directionally and curve movements embed the whole body with a fantastic sensibility of diving swirly movement. This together with the use of yellows, greys, reds, and browns generates a whole sense of liveliness and realness.

Excerpt from Shigisan Engii, Shigisan-engi, Legend of Mount Shigi, source: unknown.

A later developed continuity device in presenting a narrative is illustrated in the Kegon Gokugosho Scroll. The pictures occupy the entire length of the scroll and text was fit only where necessary. This solved the issue of script breaking up the flow with the scene structure. In the Shigisan Engi, text is completely omitted and it is left to the reader to decipher the happenings. While colour is still there, the work focuses on the human interactions allowing line constructions to join the scenes.

Although continuity was essentially mastered, the next issue arose with ease of understanding. Again, a well-educated audience was required to receive the full effect of the scroll, as the aid of text was omitted. The intellectual aspect of mono-no-aware can be identified here. As the inclusion of text excluded the lower classes from engagement, these scrolls would have been more widely appreciated.

Many emakimono present descriptions of the Imperial Courts. This type of work is one of genre, a description of place and people, scenes of daily life, an important dimension of yamato-e. Here we have a new departure in painting through subject. In these descriptive illustrations, fukinauki yatai is used as the primary device for communication. The artist creates a spacial sensibility that allows the spectator to observe the interactions between the characters from a right to left birds-eye view. The linear constructions define the scenes, separate them and join them. In the Tenjin scrolls, this is done by omitting the roof of the Court.

Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine (Kitano Tenjin engi emaki)late 13th century, image source:

Space is constructed with strong diagonal orthogonal projecting lines, generating the sense of a large room with multiple points of perspective. Although this is not what we would see today as realistic perspective, it was a universally accepted as convincingly three-dimensional. There is clearly no interaction between the figures and together with the spacial conventions, this presents a detached vision of day to day life.

The elite of society were exclusive in ability to fully read into the projected interactions of an iconographic nature. The uneducated would never have had the opportunity to view them. Although, I find it difficult to believe the uneducated could not understand highly expressive motifs. Looking to the scroll of Ban Dainagon even without total knowledge of the historical event, they are seemingly obvious.

The Ban Dainagon scrolls contain figures who openly express emotions of thrill and terror in the fire at the Imperial Court. Peculiarly the lower classes are depicted with great importance. Yet it is still possible the underlying account of the struggle for power among the aristocratic clans in the ninth century requires a deeper understanding.

The Tale of Genji scroll certainly holds the need for interpretation. In the third scene of the Yadorigi chapter, the discord between the prince and his wife is symbolized by the effects of the autumn wind on the curtain and grass. Also, the unbalanced composition and pose of finger suggest the melancholy of the forsaken princess. In most cases, we can say emakimono also served the function of ordering society separating the masses through a wealth of knowledge.

Art is an ever-evolving entity driven by the artists who are in constant search for a greater way to convey their intentions. It is in this sense we can see emakimono as a vehicle for the development of art. The original style of painting emakimono was named tsukuri-e where the illustration was thickly outlined with black. Every area was then covered in thick, rich pigment. In order to create a naturalism or vitality in their work, artists developed a new style of painting known as sumi-e. This technique consists of varying linear motions to create pictures purely of smooth monochromatic ink outlines.

Section of the Choju-Jinbutsu-Giga emaki (Kou kan), Heian period, Kosan-ji Temple, Suntory Museum,

With the omission of colour and focus on gesture, sumi-e would have been very realistic to the contemporary audience. The famed Choju Giga clearly present this technique in emakimono. The gestures encompass elements of humour and satire, a new subject facilitated by the new style. They are claimed to be “technically one of the finest pieces of drawing which Japan has produced.” As exemplified with this type of attitude, the style heightened artistic value as realism became more highly valued in Japan. It is believed the Animal Scrolls were a leisurely activity for the priest-artists as a break from strictly copying iconographic works. Ironic as this leisurely style brought Japanese painting to new heights.

In the quest to solve how to present historical and legendary stories as well as describe reality and serve an artist’s drive to create, we see a crystallisation of the Japanese style yamato-e. In the way the scrolls are read, we see a change from the original adaption from Chinese horizontal formats to scrolls using a scene like structure, or no text at all.

The advantage of tsukuri-e is its ability to identify key characters through colours and to construct colour continuities between scenes. Within this development, calligraphy was lifted to the elite height of painting and facilitated the strong link between literature and painting. Colour and directional rhythmic linear combinations allowed for visual communication as a substitute for running text.

Using compositional conventions, artists developed a new way of presenting at a scene with fukinuki yatai. They showed real subjects from the real world the way they were believed to be viewed in reality. Finally, the style of sumi-e brought realism and vitality to painting from the purely descriptive and iconographical style of ‘Tsukuri-E.’ All of these developments occurred in painting due to the artistic intentions to heighten the storytelling experience. Emakimono visually presented Japan with their very own history, legends, documents, and lives. As a result, a Japanese identity of one thousand years ago was preserved for us to ponder today.


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