New in the library: Kameda Bōsai
Post #1199 • June 25, 2008, 9:35 AM • 2 Comments
Kameda Bōsai was a painter, poet, calligrapher, and Confucian scholar, but above all he was a free spirit. His Mountains of the Heart is widely acknowledged as one of the finest Japanese woodblock books, not because of his technical skill or artistic elaboration, but rather because his spirited personality comes through clearly in every landscape image.
Bōsai's most extensive trip took him to the Echizen region of norhtwest Japan, which was later immortalized in a novel by Yasunari Kawabata, called Snow Country. Leaving in the spring of 1809, Bōsai journeyed for almost three years. Already well-known for his poetry and calligraphy, Bōsai had no trouble finding hosts and making new friends, including one of the great Zen poet-calligraphers of the day, Daigu Ryōkan (1757-1831). In many ways they were kindred spirits, even though Ryōkan was a monk and Bōsai a scholar. They both loved poertry, calligraphy, and an independent lifestyle; Ryōkan lived in a tiny hut rather than a temple, and Bōsai no longer held any academic posts. Bōsai was impressed when Ryōkan answered a request for a large banner by writing in the simple Japanese syllabary rather than Chinese characters, and he was also influenced by Ryōkan's earthworm form of cursive script. The respect was mutual, and Ryōkan wrote a quatrain about his new friend:
Bōsai is a wise man who doesn't fuss over worldy matters;
For some reason he has come to visit this town.
Yesterday, in the thronged streets,
I saw him laughing as someone supported him by the arm.
We may guess that Bōsai was somewhat inebriated at the time.
The book contains a lovely fascsimile of Mountains, originally published in 1816. The woodcuts use a greatly simplified style that at once looks rough and graceful. Extraordinary workmanship and control never appears as such, but rather as understated perfection. Bōsai, like Ryōkan, found a stylistic analogue for a kind of humility so true and far-reaching that it became, despite the outward cultural trappings, the prime focus of his spiritual life. Bōsai introduced the volume thusly:
The images on this paper are the mountains of my heart. They are merely freewheeling creations, lacking technique, of a sort never intended to be transmitted in great numbers. They derive their artistic lineage quite simply from the residual, unorthodox inspiration of a moment's terrible intoxication on my part.
There's something of a tradition of floor-scraping prefaces in Japanese literature, but one can assume that this example comes from the heart.
Translated and explicated plates follow the facsimile. The translations are invaluable to those of us who don't read Japanese; the explications at least prove helpful at times even if they ring a bit superficially. One doesn't go to Stephen Addiss for gripping visual commentary, but you can depend on him for fine translations, excellent historical background, a superb eye, and a flair for finding these unusual and underknown works from the vast Asian literary and artistic canon. His monograph The Art of Zen is invaluable, and his Art of Twentieth-Century Zen is a great plesure.