Author: Tōko Sawada
Specifications: ISBN  978-4163902494
358 pages
13.5 x 19.5 cm / 5.4 x 7.8 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Bungeishunju Ltd.
Tokyo, 2015
Buy now: amazon.co.jp


Japanese painter Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800) is known for his wondrously meticulous brushwork in pieces that blend realism with imagination. Although he was largely forgotten for a time, a major retrospective mounted in the year 2000 to mark the 200th anniversary of his death brought him back into the national consciousness and launched something of a Jakuchū boom. In the spring of 2012, a month-long exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC was seen by more than 200,000 visitors. One of Japan’s most rapidly rising new stars of historical fiction then published this much-discussed biographical novel in 2015, and in 2016, a Tokyo exhibition commemorating the 300th anniversary of Jakuchū’s birth brought him further attention.

Author Tōko Sawada’s narrative focuses mainly on the latter half of Jakuchū’s life, from around the age of 40 until his death. As the eldest son, Jakuchū inherited the headship of the family’s produce wholesaling enterprise at age 23, when his father died. But he had an asocial personality and showed little interest in business, and in 1755 he turned operations over to his two younger brothers so that he could retire early and devote himself to painting. His reputation as an artist was sealed a number of years later when he donated a work that would later become part of his Dōshoku sai-e (Colorful Realm of Living Beings) collection to a temple.

Sawada posits Jakuchū’s decision to retire in his 40th year as having been motivated by a desire to memorialize his wife Miwa, who had hanged herself eight years before. Displeased with Jakuchū for his neglect of business while pursuing his personal passion of painting, his mother and brothers had long been taking it out on Miwa with all manner of abuse, and it had finally become too much for her. In anger at Jakuchū’s failure to protect Miwa, her younger brother Benzō, known to posterity as the painter Kunkei Ichikawa, began producing forgeries of Jakuchū’s work. The narrative imagines Jakuchū as a doleful figure who was driven to withdraw into his art by sadness over the loss of his wife on the one hand, and by the desire to keep one step ahead of Benzō and his rapidly advancing skills on the other.

Benzō loses his wife and is himself severely burned in the Great Kyoto Fire of 1788 that destroyed large swaths of the city. Jakuchū reaches out to him, taking in his infant son Shinzō as his own and deciding to raise him as an artist. Indeed, in Jakuchū’s final years, Shinzō comes to play a role in his artistic production. This resonates in an interesting way with the view held by some scholars that Jakuchū’s works were actually produced jointly by Jakuchū and Benzō.

The novel delves into the stories behind Jakuchū’s many masterworks and into the techniques he used to produce them. It also offers detailed portraits of other major artists of the time: Ike no Taiga (1723–76), the only other contemporary painter with whom Jakuchū maintained a friendship; Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–95), who took the art world by storm with his blending of Western naturalism into native techniques, started his own school, and trained numerous students; and poet and painter Yosa Buson (1716–84), who in contrast to Jakuchū’s well-to-do upbringing came from a peasant background.

Sawada has fleshed out the few known facts about Jakuchū’s life into a masterfully imagined fictional biography.