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Legendary Iwasa Matabei and his three epic scrolls of tales

2021.03.12(Fri) - 2021.04.20(Tue)


A seventeenth-century artist, Iwasa Matabei (1578–1650, aka Katsumochi), enjoyed a successful career as a painter, famous for his characteristic drawing of people with roundish, elongated heads and the unique combination of Japanese and Chinese painting styles. Dubbed “Ukiyo-Matabei,” he was regarded as the father of the ukiyoe culture that flourished later. However, he was also an elusive figure despite his popularity.

Themes for his paintings were wide, from Chinese and Japanese literary classics to contemporary genre paintings, and in particular, his works of scrolls illustrating “jōruri” puppet plays with scripts. This exhibition offers an opportunity to view three of the most renowned scrolls with illustrated jōruri plays: the tales of Yamanaka Tokiwa, of Princess Jōruri, and of Horie. These three works represent Matabei’s heart and soul, forming a body of his masterpieces and invaluable resources to learn about his artistic achievements.

The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa tells a story of a young man and his revenge for his mother, who was murdered by a gang of thieves. The liveliness and intensity of the details, it is believed, suggests that Matabei was most deeply involved in the creation of this illustrated work.

The Tale of Princess Jōruri features the same young man and is about his romantic liaison with a daughter of a local influential family. The illustration is particularly lavish with gold, silver, and other expensive color paints.

The Tale of Horie is another story of vengeance, in which a son of the Hories, a powerful clan in north-east Japan, fulfils his revenge against another clan with whom the family fought and perished in a fierce battle. These stories were played in puppet theaters “Jōruri,” which in itself became an established performance art during the Edo period. The scripts that accompany the drawings are invaluable source of information to learn about the history of performing art in Japan.


Illustrated scroll, The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa, attributed to Iwasa Matabei, 17th century (Edo period), Important Cultural Property

Chapter 1 (part)

Categorized as the otogi-zōshi-style narrative literature, the Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa is based on a legendary twelfth-century warrior, Minamoto no Yoshitsune (appears as ‘Ushiwaka’ in the story). He leaves Imperial Kyoto for the northern territory of Japan, and his mother Tokiwa, for the want of seeing her son once again, follows his path but inadvertently falls into the hands of thieves in Yamanaka. Ushiwaka comes to know of his mother’s ill fate and pledges a revenge.

This play was a popular program of puppet theaters during the first half of the seventeenth century. The scroll was likely to have been produced based on an authorized original script of the play. This epic tale consists of twelve chapters (tomes), and the scrolls stretch a total of over 150 m. This series is considered to be the most vibrant and powerful of all narrative scrolls attributed to him, suggesting the artist was most dedicated in the production process. Matabei’s distinctive brushwork is evident throughout, particularly with the excellent depiction of the backgrounds and customs, seen in Chapters 2 and 3. Some scenes are depicted particularly candidly, such as Tokiwa and her lady-in-waiting under attack by the pirates in Chapter 4, and Ushiwaka slaying the culprits in Chapter 9. His genius is also found in the expressions of suspense and emotions through the depiction of props in the scenes. He also leveraged his deep understanding of classical paintings, which shows in the compositions of some scenes.

The cover of the scroll (the very end of the strip) is lined with opulent gold-embroidered fabric on the outer side, and gold-leafed on the inner side. The paper used has a particular chrysanthemum and water flow pattern, and an identical design is found in the rifle instruction book Jiki Yagura, which was signed by daimyo Matsudaira Tadanao, suggesting his involvement in the commissioning of the scroll. The actual year of creation is unknown. Perhaps during the mid-seventeenth century, when the artist lived in Fukui. Alternatively, the late-sixteenth century has been suggested based on the style of the paper decoration and lining. Its provenance extends back to Matsudaira Nobunori, the first lord of Tsuyama Domain (present-day Okayama).

The work came into the public light when the properties of the Matsudaira family were put to auction in 1925, and then a famous publisher Hasegawa Minokichi acquired the scrolls three years later, alarmed that they were otherwise going to be sold to a German collector. Hasegawa thus became a precursor of the social enthusiasm in Iwasa Matabei in the mid-20th century. This work has thus historical value to learn about the life of this somehow elusive artist and his extraordinary paintings.


Illustrated scroll, The Tale of Princess Jōruri, attributed to Iwasa Matabei, 17th century (Edo period), Important Cultural Property

Chapter 3 (part)

The story features the same Ushiwaka from the Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa and comprises twelve chapters in four parts. The script in the scroll has one part missing. The main theme of the story is a romantic liaison between the young man and Jōruri, a daughter of an influential commoner family in the town of Yahagi. It was a favorite story of the late-sixteenth century, often narrated by blind Buddhists for entertainment. Later, in the seventeenth century, it was adopted as a jōruri puppet play and performed for commoner audiences widely.

The details taken from the script embellish the screens with extraordinary rendition, from Ushiwaka’s costume designs to the interior designs of Jōruri’s maids’ room, the furniture in her bed chamber, and the correspondence between the two young people. This work is considered to be the most opulent and colorful of Matabei’s storytelling scrolls. The artist’s household name characteristics of human figures with elongated roundish heads are the sign that this is the work of Matabei’s atelier, but it is considered to have had less degree of the painter’s involvement, based on the fact that template depiction of human figures is observed in many parts.

Compared to the Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa, which was created meticulously with all scrolls consisting precisely 13 sheets of paper and script texts and illustrations always matching, the scrolls of the Tale of Princess Jōruri are less organized: different lengths for different scrolls, with some evidence that texts and illustrations were edited in places after the initial completion. These physical differences suggest that the circumstances under which the latter was produced were quite different. Like the former, these scrolls were held by the same Matsudaira family.

Again, the silver-leafed paper holding the core bar has the chrysanthemum and water flow pattern that is identical with the paper of the rifle instruction Jiki Yagura, signed by daimyo Matsudaira Tadanao, suggesting the involvement of the Matsudaira family in the commissioning of the work.

It is believed that it was created in the mid-seventeenth century, but it could possibly be a little earlier, the idea being supported by the scene in Chapter 4, where Princess Jōruri is seated in front of a spread of paper inscribed with lyrics of a sixteenth-century song. There are some similarities in the depiction of people with the folding screen housed in the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya, which allows some insights into the association between the Matabei’s atelier and production of genre paintings.


Illustrated scroll, The Tale of Horie, attributed to Iwasa Matabei, 17th century (Edo period), Important Cultural Property

Chapter 6 (part)

The Tale of Horie is another story of vengeance, in which a son of the Hories, a powerful clan in north-east Japan, fulfils his revenge against another clan with whom the family fought and lost lives in a fierce battle. Like the other two tales, this story was played in the jōruri puppet theaters.

The version in the MOA Museum collection comprises twelve chapters (scrolls) in total, and there are similar illustrated scrolls of the same plot known to exist, with four scrolls and a fragment of drawing. Together, it is estimated that the original work may have been an epic narrative of twenty chapters. Some scenes look extremely similar between the two examples of the Tales of Horie, but the version held by the MOA Museum of Art has remarkably fewer illustrations, each of which are also shorter in length, than the extant incomplete set of four scrolls. The conventional theory holds that the Museum’s collection is an abridged version of an original, fuller work, attributed to the other set. However, details do not necessarily support this theory, indicating complexity of contextual descriptions behind the production of these scrolls.

The attribution to Matabei is based on characteristic features observed in the illustrations: the oblong faces, rather long limbs with back-bending extremes, and the use of vivid colors and decorative designs. In the twelve chapters, violent and savage scenes appear repeatedly, depicting battles and slaughters, which resembles the characteristics of the Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa. The calligraphic handwriting is extremely similar to that seen in the Tales of Princess Jōruri, suggesting close relevance between the two works.

Documentations exist to verify the first theatrical performance, but the original script has not been discovered to this day. Therefore, the twelve-chapter version at the Museum is a valuable artifact to reveal the narrative. The roll-end paper is lined with a gold-embroidered fabric, bearing a design of phoenix among floral arabesque. Inside, the gold-leafed paper is decorated with a fan-shaped window with an ink wash painting. Its creation is estimated to be the mid-seventeenth century, and its provenance is unknown.