Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Fox eyes

There is much that puzzles me in Japanese art.

In my last entry I discussed the round eyes of supernatural beings like tengu. Let me show a piece of complicating evidence. Look at these two depictions of Commodore Perry made in the in the aftermath of his arrival to Japan in 1853. As historians like Gregory Smits (see this online lecture) or John Dower (see this online essay) point out, Perry is portrayed as a tengu.

Tengu came in two kinds: either bignosed goblins with glaring eyes or birdlike beings with wings. The "tengu" on top is of the former kind and the one below of the latter kind.

What strikes me is that the depictions show Perry with narrow and slanted eyes rather than the round eyes usually associated with tengu. Neither did Perry "in reality" have very narrow eyes. So why are the eyes narrow?

Interestingly, the portraits show that this time it is narrow eyes, rather than big round ones, that inspire fear. Could it be that these portraits reflect the emergence of a new cultural convention, common today, that associates narrow eyes with evil and round eyes with goodness? That's a tempting hypothesis, but I don't think it holds. Narrow eyes continued to be standard in portrayals of human beings in the Meiji period. Instead, we can note that there is something inhuman and fox-like in Perry's eyes.

Foxes (kitsune) are of course famous as tricksters in Japanese folklore, widely believed to be able to possess human beings, cause madness and conjure up hallucinations. As far as I can tell, foxes have always been portrayed with narrow slanted eyes.

But why do these fox-eyes emerge in the Perry portraits? And how do the narrow, slanted eyes of foxes relate to the round eyes of other beings with supernatural or superhuman powers?  

Clearly, I need to have a closer look at foxes and at how foxes have been thought about.

A hypothesis

Considering that round eyes become "cutified" in the course of the Edo period, could it be that Perry had to be given narrow "fox-eyes" in order to convery the proper sense of dread?

This is an attractive hypothesis.

Let us first look at some corroborating evidence.

First, let’s recall that Perry’s arrival was something extraordinary - the first time Westerners had a major impact on Japanese society. The Dutch in Dejima harbor or the Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century were never portrayed with anything like the same monstrous features, probably because they were never felt as a threat to Japanese society. Despite being referred to as "red-hairs" (kômô), or "southern barbarians" (nanban) the Portuguese and Dutch were surprisingly little exoticized in most pre-modern Japanese illustrations. As Smits writes, "they are clearly 100% human, with no monster-like features".

It is possible, however, to find pictures of foreigners with monster like features, both in the Edo period and in the modern times.

To the left is a detail of picture from around 1830 by Yanagawa Shigenobu. To the right is a wartime cartoon depicting president Roosevelt burning democracy with the torch of dictatorship. Both pictures use big round eyes to convey a sense of monstrosity.

We can note, however, that this "monstrosity" is no longer fearsome. While Yanagawa's picture purports to depict the bed room chamber of "southern barbarians", the male character is reminiscent of a Buddhist guardian god. Yanagawa being famous as a producer of shunga (erotica), his aim may very well have been to surely to suggest, under cover of portraying foreigners, the titillating motif of Buddhist deities engaging in sacrilegious sex. The round eyes, rather than inspiring fear, have become a comical sign of spiritual weakness and depravity.

Roosevelt is depicted as a devil (oni). But note how comical and desperate he looks. The cartoon is clearly not intended to show the allied leader as fearful, but rather as ridiculous.

These examples suggest that round eyes are no longer sufficient if you want to convey a real sense of threat or evil. While round eyes can still be used in illustrations to suggest a likeness to the traditional idea of devils or guardian kings, the beings equipped with such eyes seem to have lost the force to inspire dread. If fact, they've become powerless. The guardian deity is no longer in a reliable guardian against evil and Roosevelt clearly looks as if he's losing the war. The round eyes, then, have become signs of the very opposite of what they once used to signify: power.

So why aren't foxes cutified?
But why choose fox-eyes for the Perry portraits? For some reason, the "cutification" of monsters or other beings close to superhuman or sacred power during the Edo-period doesn't seem to apply to foxes. Why? Is there any discernable reason for the narrow, slanted fox-eyes to have been more dreadful than the big, round eyes of other monsters?

Let me suggest three reasons:

First, there are the inherent traits of foxes in popular imagination which may been hard to "cutify" - their association with deception and night, a time of day for which respect lingers on even in modern societies.

Secondly, one can move outside such inherent traits to search for broader and more general explanations. Superhuman beings of the round-eyes type seem to have been closely linked to Buddhism (think of the old association between Buddhist monks and mountains, tanuki, tengu etc). Foxes too once shared this link through their association with Dakini, but over time they came to be more closely linked to so-called Shintô though the Inari-cult (and through the cult of the mountain god, which which they were also associated). Now the Edo-period was a time when the revival of Shintô began (kokugaku) and Buddhism lost vitality, being institutionalized and ”tamed” by the state. This is probably the most important factor that explains why “round eyes” cease to be feared while foxes continue to be awed as carriers of sacred powers.

Finally, one might add the basic difference between the primary objects of worship in Buddhism and Shintô. As Motoori points out, the kami have nothing to do with good or bad. The only requirement is that they inspire awe. Even today, one finds Japanese who say that they are not afraid of going to Buddhist temples at night, but going to a Shintô shrine is another matter. Buddhas, by contrast, are benevolent, guiding all living beings towards liberation and peace. Even the most fearsome beings in the Buddhist pantheon – like Deva kings and tengu (who came to be regarded as protectors of Buddhism) – ultimately served this aim.

These factors help explain why foxes resisted the trend to the ”cutification” and why round eyes would not have conveyed the proper level of fear on the Perry portraits.

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