Toba Sojo

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Toba Sojo

Toba Sojo (1053-1140), Japanese painter-priest, is believed to have painted the Animal Caricature, or Choju Giga, scrolls, which are considered among the finest examples of Japanese narrative scroll painting.

Toba Sojo, whose true name was Kakuyu, was a Japanese nobleman of the Heian period who became a Buddhist abbot. According to tradition, he is thought to have painted the famous set of scrolls representing caricatures of animals and people (in the Kozanji, a monastery near Kyoto). Modern scholars no longer accept this attribution uncritically and are inclined to believe that while he is indeed the author of the first two scrolls, which were probably painted during the second quarter of the 12th century, the two remaining scrolls are probably the work of an anonymous follower of the artist who worked during the early 13th century, the beginning of the Kamakura period.

The type of painting found in these scrolls is derived from the tradition of Buddhist monochrome ink painting that flourished during the Heian and Kamakura periods and was employed to depict the Buddhist deities in their proper iconographic form. At the same time the Animal Caricature scrolls may also be regarded as one of the most outstanding examples of the school of Japanese painting known as Yamato-e, which specialized in depicting narrative scenes taken from Japanese history and from literature such as the Heiji Monogatari and the Tale of Genji as well as stories and legends of famous Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

Since the scrolls are not accompanied by a text and have no unity of subject matter, the exact meaning of the paintings is not known. However, it is said that the first scroll, which is artistically by far the finest, represents a veiled attack on the corruption of the Buddhist clergy of the time. A worship scene showing the seated Buddha in the form of a large frog with a monkey in priest's garb and rabbit and fox attendants would support such an interpretation. Other sections of this scroll show the animals wrestling, swimming, and frolicking, all rendered in a free, humorous spirit. The later scrolls, although they also depict some animals, primarily show the human figure rendered in a similar satirical manner.

The scrolls are painted in black ink on white paper. Particularly fine are the first two scrolls, those believed to be by Toba Sojo, which show a mastery of brushwork and a remarkable animation. This pictorial tradition, although ultimately derived from China, where it had flourished since Han times, was introduced into Japan during the 6th century and had continued to be popular in the Buddhist monasteries. Depending on line rather than color, the Japanese painters of this school employed a remarkable economy of means and expressive power which are very typical of the best of the painting of the Far East.

Further Reading

The best publication of the scrolls is Hideo Okudaira, Choju Giga, Scrolls of Animal Caricatures, adapted into English by S. Kaneko (1969). For a more general discussion of Japanese scroll painting see Kenji Toda, Japanese Scroll Painting (1935), and Dietrich Seckel, Emakimono: The Art of the Japanese Painted Handscroll (1959). □