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This is a past article published in Hiragana Times. Each Japanese paragraph is followed by its English translation or vise versa, and furigana are placed above each kanji to make Japanese study even easier. [Magazine Sample] [Subscription Page]

A Look at Hokusai’s Edo

[From May Issue 2015]


Sarusuberi, Cover of first issue
Written by SUGIURA Hinako. Published by Chikuma Shobo

Sarusuberi (Crape Myrtle)

This story is about “ukiyoe” (wood block print) artist KATSUSHIKA Hokusai, and his daughter Oei, who lived in Edo – the former name of Tokyo. Drawing on her knowledge as a scholar of Edo manners and customs, writer SUGIURA Hinako carefully depicts the culture and lifestyle of the common people of those times. The title, “Sarusuberi,” is taken from a flower that blooms for about 100 days from early summer to autumn. According to the writer, the vitality of the plant whose recurring blossoms are heavy enough to bend its branches, chimes with her image of Hokusai. The story was serialized in Manga Sunday Magazine from 1983 to 1987.

On a winter morning in 1814 towards the end of the year, IKEDA Zenjiro, one of Hokusai’s pupils, rushes into the tenement house where his master Hokusai and his master’s daughter, Oei live. When Oei says she does not want any trouble, Zenjiro hands her a picture, saying he has just seen a freshly severed woman’s head. He has drawn a picture of a head that has been displayed in front of the gate of a samurai residence. Hokusai says he wants to see the sight for himself and, accompanied by Zenjiro, sets off to see it for his own amusement.

But the facts about the case of the severed head become clear when Zenjiro saves the life of a man who tries to take his own life by throwing himself into the river. The man was in service to a samurai and the head belonged to this samurai’s daughter. The daughter had fallen in love with a man from a different class and had been forced to break off the relationship. Subsequently this man was executed. Following him in death, the daughter took her own life. The man who had tried to throw himself into the river, had told his master about the couple’s relationship. After placing the woman’s head at the gate, he tried to kill himself, too.

Unsurprised by this, Hokusai simply convinces the man to enter the Buddhist priesthood so he can free himself from his suffering. Hokusai never offers consolation that is considerate of people’s feelings, nor does he give advice to lighten the heart. The way Hokusai behaves reflects the unsentimental mind-set of Edo’s citizens.

Hokusai is a sharp-tongued and short-tempered man who, despite being married, has affairs with his female pupils. When he is invited to show off his painting skills to the shogun, he fails to impress. A lively portrait is painted of an eccentric and fallible human being.

The appeal of this work is, in addition to the character of Hokusai, its affectionate depiction of people living in Edo. Mingled with the stories dealing with everyday life are stories in which dead people and ghosts appear. During this period of undeveloped medical treatment, earthquakes and famines occurred. Death was close at hand and this world and the afterlife existed side by side. The wall between reality and illusion was thin, enabling humans and fantastical beings to easily come and go between the two worlds.

At the story draws to a close, Hokusai divines that his infant daughter has died when a strong wind blows on his tenement house. Here, more than sorrow, the fragility of life is emphasized. At the same time, Hokusai’s deep fear of death is portrayed. This is not the only part of this work in which Hokusai shows his weak side. The work shows Hokusai not only as a great artist but also as KAWAMURA Tetsuzo, an ordinary man, as well as depicting the town of Edo where he lived.

Text: HATTA Emiko

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