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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Eyes of the Heart: Illustration and the Visual Imagination in Modern Japanese Literature

  • Author(s): Bassoe, Pedro Thiago Ramos
  • Advisor(s): O'Neill, Daniel
  • et al.

My dissertation investigates the role of images in shaping literary production in Japan from the 1880’s to the 1930’s as writers negotiated shifting relationships of text and image in the literary and visual arts. Throughout the Edo period (1603-1868), works of fiction were liberally illustrated with woodblock printed images, which, especially towards the mid-19th century, had become an essential component of most popular literature in Japan. With the opening of Japan’s borders in the Meiji period (1868-1912), writers who had grown up reading illustrated fiction were exposed to foreign works of literature that largely eschewed the use of illustration as a medium for storytelling, in turn leading them to reevaluate the role of image in their own literary tradition. As authors endeavored to produce a purely text-based form of fiction, modeled in part on the European novel, they began to reject the inclusion of images in their own work. This literary transformation, from a pictorial to logographic orientation, has previously been noted by scholars, but has often been mischaracterized as a sudden and total shift. In my dissertation, I show that, in fact, illustration remained a major component of literary publications in Japan well into the 20th century, as I argue that experimentation with verbal-visual form was a crucial element in the production of a modern literary idiom.

I begin my dissertation by analyzing the work of Tsubouchi Shōyō (1859-1935), who argued early on in his career that Japanese authors needed to replace illustration with descriptive language in order to develop a modern form of writing. I show that in his own fiction, however, Shōyō continued to use illustration extensively, including images that he designed himself. Eventually, he came to see the traditional illustrated fiction of the Edo period not as an early stage of literary development to be overcome, but rather as a unique form of verbal-visual art that deserved to be treated as a national cultural heritage. In my second chapter, I explore Ozaki Kōyō’s (1867-1903) ambivalent relationship to illustration, which he vocally opposed in public statements, even while contributing personally to the visual design of his own work. According to contemporary artists, Kōyō was known for providing self-penned draft images with meticulous notes for his illustrators, while closely supervising every element of his work’s visual expression. In his writing, Kōyō treated visual media as a metaphor for language, which he separated into two modes of representation: the photographic (unmediated) mode, which corresponds to literary realism, and the painterly (mediated) mode, which refers to early modern traditions of Japanese writing. The second half of my dissertation focuses on the work of Izumi Kyōka (1873-1939), a writer whose passion for Edo period picture-books (ehon or kusazōshi) influenced his literary production throughout a nearly five-decade career. In his fiction, Kyōka created a complex visual matrix of symbolic imagery by combining references to art from the Edo period with extensive illustration and densely visual language. Evincing an attitude towards illustration that might best be described as reverent, Kyōka frequently wrote stories about popular images that transform into religious icons, while working closely with his favorite artists to produce spectral illusions that crossed the borders between text and image. His longest artistic collaboration was with Komura Settai (1887-1940), an artist whose romantic images of dark alleyways, faceless geisha, and Edo period architecture intersected with Kyōka’s literary depictions of urban space to produce a ghostly vision of modern Tokyo.

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