The original Japanese sci-fi story


Scrolls depicting one of the oldest Japanese stories are on display in the Chester Beatty, and their beauty, colour and format still effectively tells a very familiar story even several centuries later, writes GEMMA TIPTON

IN THE DIM interior of the book-lined room at the Chester Beatty library, it is difficult to get a sense of the real age of the object I am looking at. Outside, it is a bright but chilly morning, but here the lights are muted to preserve the colours of ancient pigments. The object in question is a recently restored scroll, one of a pair telling The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Shortly to be centrepiece of a new exhibition, it is very beautiful, but as I take it in, I find that I am thinking less about the story it tells, and more about what it says about how we show and tell stories ourselves, and about the nature of time.

The Bamboo Cutter is one of the oldest tales in Japanese fiction, and some even consider it to be the earliest example of science fiction in history. It was originally written in the ninth century; scholars date it to then because of a reference to smoke emitting from Mount Fuji, which ceased in 905. The later Japanese epic masterpiece The Tale of Genji (completed in 1021) refers to it as “the ancestor of all romances”. The Chester Beatty scrolls come from the 17th century, and are thought to be the earliest-surviving illustrated version of The Bamboo Cutter’s Tale, which was originally a court satire.

Made for a member of the emerging Japanese merchant/middle classes, the scrolls present a rich mixture of calligraphy and image-making. At the time of their making, the art of handwriting would have been as highly prized as the painting of the pictures in the scroll, if not more.

Nevertheless, the scrolls themselves were not originally considered to be particularly valuable, being of less import than artworks made for the samurai and court classes. Now, rarity has increased their value, and a two-year project, carried out in the Netherlands, and supported by the Sumitomo Foundation in Tokyo, has seen them returned to their original glory.

Previous interventions had caused damage, with heavy paper backing and narrow rollers creating creasing and harm to pigments. The meticulous nature of this restoration, which included remaking original papers and glues from sources as diverse as alder cones and deerskin, calls for a leap of faith to believe that what is in front of your eyes is actually 300 years old. The patina of age is absent, the colours are bright, and it challenges misplaced expectations that old equals worn, dull and scarred.

If elements of The Bamboo Cutter’s Tale seem familiar (foundling in rushes, changeling child, supernatural gold, riches for the good and humiliation for the greedy, suitors and impossible tasks, mighty ruler defeated by gods, impossible love), it is probably because all stories, across all cultures, derive from the same basic need – to make sense of the contradictions of the human condition.

Presented as a scroll, and to be read in the Japanese manner from right to left, the arrangement of the tale subtly changes how we understand its story; and these are changes worth considering in the light of how we communicate our own stories today. If you’re reading this in the newspaper, you will have turned the page to find this article. If you are online, you may have clicked a link to a new web page, but you’ll also have scrolled down. Pages and scrolling are the two ways in which we access written text, and in 17th-century Japan, just as today, they were at a crux point between reading printed pages and scrolling for their stories.

Reading a book, the relative weights in your right and left hand let you know how close you are to the conclusion, how near things are to being resolved. There is a hierarchy, particularly in a newspaper, between beginning, middle and end, which is absent from a web page, accessed through a search engine. Scrolls are similar, but different. You can dip in and out of pages (and web pages), flick forward, check back, but scrolls move inevitably on. The way this plays out can be seen most notably today in synagogues, as a new section of the Torah is read and the scroll is rolled and unrolled until the cycle is complete and begins again, always telling the same story, and in the same order.

The Chester Beatty copy of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter consists of two scrolls, 15.23 and 13.65 metres long respectively, and the action unfurls through images and written segments. Within each picture, time is handled differently. In the first, the bamboo cutter is seen both bringing his new daughter home, and watching over her in her crib with his wife. A misty cloud of pure gold and silver hangs over the scene.

Later, the humiliation of one of the suitors is separated from the scene depicting his made-up journey by a simple painted fence. The duration of the journey of another is marked by a cherry-blossom tree in bud, then in bloom, and another cloud of gold and silver.

Looking at the images gives a sense of how the story might have been read aloud. The tale of the fourth suitor is painted in a circular sequence of images. To eyes used to the way Western and European narratives unfold, this may initially seem confusing. Our comic strips separate scenes into a series of panels or boxes, and even those art works that imply a story present it at a particular moment in time.

Here, different “times” are shown in one image, making the scene more dynamic, but also giving rise to the idea that past, present and future are all present in a single moment, and can’t be teased out so neatly in the linear fashion we tend to try to subject them to. The present arises from the past, and the future is also present in the now, implicit in the ramifications of what we choose to do at any given moment.

In the very final scene, the image also reads from left to right, signifying the time when the scroll will be re-rolled in preparation for the story to begin again. Bamboo Cutter is on display in a special room at the Chester Beatty until August, while sections of The Tale of Genji, and also the rather wonderful Japanese Waka Poetry Contest (in which a poetry competition between animals ends up in out-and-out war) are also on display elsewhere in the museum. The stories themselves haven’t changed over the years of their telling and retelling, and viewed in all their glowing colours, they don’t feel like relics of history, but instead as vital tales; as vibrant, fascinating and contemporary as they must have done on the day they were first unrolled.

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin until August 5th,

'The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter'

A POOR, but respectable and good, bamboo cutter finds a three-inch-high baby girl in a stalk of bamboo. He brings her home and, together with his wife, rears her until she grows to normal height, and almost supernatural beauty.

While she is in his care, he regularly finds bamboo stalks filled with gold, and so he grows rich. The couple name the child Nayotake no Kaguya-hime, the Shining Princess of the Supple Bamboo, or Kaguya, for short.

Naturally, because this is a romance, suitors appear, and inevitably, because this is a romance, Kaguya rejects them all, giving them impossible tasks to win her hand. They all fail, some while also trying to cheat, and all are humiliated.

The emperor comes to hear of her beauty, and when he sees her, he too falls in love. For three years they correspond, but she refuses to marry him.

Kaguya reveals she is from the moon, and must return. The emperor sends troops to fight the forces of the moon. They lose, and she is taken up in a celestial chariot, leaving behind the elixir of everlasting life, which the emperor, distraught, causes to be burned on the summit of Mount Fuji.