Perspective | This Japanese Scroll Describes the Horrors of the War Across 23 Incredible Feet – The Washington Post | Candle Made Easy

Real violence – not the movie kind – is horrific and steep. It sweeps everything in front of it and leaves chaos in its wake. A minor example, but I remember a fight breaking out in a crowded billiard room. A man had smashed a glass and hit someone in the face with it, spattering blood onto the green cloth. Within seconds about 10 men had surrounded the fighters. Some tried to break them apart, but others threw disgusting punches at people’s heads or swung billiard cues with breathtaking power. What was It wasn’t so much these details that were burned into my memory as what was frightening Impression made by a mass of bodies accelerating towards me along the edge of the pool table.

The most famous images of war in Western art describe the brutality of the fall of Troy, or the Peninsular War, or the devastation of World War I. But the most famous Japanese battle scene – and arguably the most famous work of Japanese art outside of Japan – is Night Attack on Sanjo Palace, a scroll made by unknown artists in the third quarter of the 13th century.

Because it is fragile, this masterpiece—ink and paint applied to a piece of paper 23 feet wide and just 16¼ inches tall—spends most of its time at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. I was lucky enough to see it while touring Japan in 2013 and I will never forget it.

“Night Attack” describes an incident that took place during the Heiji Rebellion, a much-written phase of civil wars between two clans, the Taira and the Minamoto. On a December night in 1159, the combined forces of Fujiwara Nobuyori and Minamoto Yoshitomo attempted a coup d’etat. Using a flimsy pretext (Nobuyori claimed he had discovered a plot against his life), they stormed Sanjo Palace with several hundred mounted warriors and kidnapped the retired (but still powerful) Emperor Go-Shirakawa and his young sister.

The full story told in “Heiji monogatari” (“Tale of the Troubles in Heiji”) is complicated, and this scroll is just one of 15 narrative accounts of the broader conflict. Only three survive. But “Night Attack,” the first installment in the series, packs enough drama to spark a lifetime of interest.

The reel is designed to be held in the hands and unroll sequentially like a comic strip, but moving from right to left. In fact, Night Attack is so powerful it almost appears animated. It’s hard to keep your eyes from darting from one detail to the next, and you’re involuntarily drawn into the atmosphere of the state of emergency.

The opening section on the far right shows a crowd of courtiers and townspeople rushing toward the palace, desperate to find out what happened. It’s a brilliant conceit: from the start, we’re put in the same position as the adrenaline-pumping crowd.

In the next section we see the attackers inside the palace walls crowding the emperor and his sister into a carriage drawn by oxen. Further to the left we see that the palace is on fire. The mountainous flames are dotted with orange dots—flying ash; the rolling smoke is thick and black.

The attackers not only set fire to the palace, but rip the women’s clothes off and shoot arrows or hack to death anyone who tries to escape. A man’s throat is slit by a warrior whose helmeted head is not human but animal (Francisco Goya would have admired that touch). Nearby, women jump into a well to escape rape and death. The Japanese text that introduces the rightmost scroll describes how those at the bottom of the well were drowned, those in the middle were suffocated, and those at the top were burned. In the final sections we see the warriors making off with the kidnapped emperor.

On the one hand, the whole thing is clear and easy to read: man and horse are individualized, not blurred. At the same time, there is an amazing elusiveness in every part of the image, from the charging crowd to the blazing flames, the charging horses, and the massed warriors, their bows protruding from the battle at various angles.

It all expresses an awareness of impermanence and precariousness (such things can happen instantly to a home, an imperial palace, or the US Capitol) that aligns with the tenets of Zen Buddhism, which was then burgeoning in Japan. The action swarms and sways, but it’s not meant to be titillating. It’s hard and terrible, and you’ll get to understand that when chaos ensues, the result will be smoking ruins, excruciating pain, and inconsolable grief.

Leave a Comment