The great history of storytelling in Japanese art

The core elements of anime’s storytelling are deeply rooted in Japanese art from over a thousand years ago. How did Japanese storytelling art evolve over time?

Japanese manga and anime are more popular than ever. 

The anime industry is also a huge part of Japan’s economy, generating a revenue of approximately 1.31 trillion yen, according to research published by the Statista Research Department. A wide range of factors that contribute to the global success of the enterprise can be narrowed down to two major characteristics: rich storytelling accompanied by visually appealing art styles. While the modern version of anime was greatly influenced by Disney picture films from the West, the core elements of anime’s storytelling are deeply rooted in Japanese art from over a thousand years ago. 

Japanese narrative art marks its beginning in the Nara period, which started in 710 C.E. and lasted until 794 C.E. As Buddhism was introduced to Japan through trade with China and Korea around the 6th century, art from this period was mainly Buddhist. Paintings would use Buddhist iconography to tell stories of the life of Buddha and convey Buddhist values. The art style during this era is relatively simple with a lack of depth and movement, perhaps to emphasize the calm nature and quiet grandeur of Buddhism. 

The first period in the history of Japanese art in which people started creating secular art was the Heian period, from 794 C.E. to 1185 C.E. While Buddhist art was still popular, the Japanese government slowly became more centralized and separated itself from religion. Due to this, many of the artworks from this era depict scenes from Japanese folklore, historical events, and literature. The rise of Japanese literature, primarily by great women writers like Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, had a significant impact on narrative art. 

One of the most popular forms of narrative art that emerged during the Heian period was the e-maki scrolls. E-maki literally means illustrated text or picture scrolls, and they usually depicted historical events or scenes from literary works accompanied by text description. One of the most famous examples of e-maki scroll art is the “Tale of Genji” scroll, based on the novel by Murasaki Shikibu. The scroll is over 12 meters long and contains over 50 scenes from the novel, which are meant to be read from right to left. Unlike modern manga, the scrolls did not have panels that divide the scenes, but the reader was expected to roll out the scroll starting from the right end to view one narrative at a time. Other examples of e-maki scrolls include the “Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace,” which depicts the battle of the Heiji rebellion

Part of “Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace” (Photo credit: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

This piece shows the palace of Emperor Go-Shirakawa set on fire as the emperor is taken away as a prisoner. The frenetic energy of the artwork is enhanced by the graphic details of fighting warriors and the lack of negative space between crowded masses. Most figures are drawn with similar features (slit eyes and hooked nose), however, despite the uniformity, a wide range of emotions are expressed just through the placement of the features. 

Another notable piece from this time period is Choju Jinbutsu Giga (鳥獣人物戯画), an e-maki scroll that shows animals such as rabbits, frogs, or monkeys engaging in human activities drawn in a humorous and playful manner. One interesting fact about this artwork is that it is actually viewed as a satirical work, as each animal symbolizes different authority figures according to the events that were happening in Japanese history when the illustrations were created. The anthropomorphism shown in these scrolls continues on today, seen in many modern animes to imply a character’s personality. 

Part of a scene in Choju Jinbutsu Giga, Animals sumo wrestling (Photo credit: Getarchive)

All of these examples of e-maki scrolls include an extensive amount of detail, emotion, and movement, adding drama to the stories. Despite being stationary pictures, these features and the immense size of the e-maki works give an illusion that the characters are actively moving, drawing the audience into the illustrated scene. 

Women on Cherry Blossom Viewing (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The popularity of e-maki scrolls lasted until the 15th century. By the beginning of the Edo period in the 17th century, another form of storytelling art appeared: ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e artists created art in woodblock prints as well as traditional paintings. Unlike e-maki scrolls that were commissioned by the imperial family or the elite class for the private view, carved wooden blocks allowed works of art to be mass-produced and more accessible to a wider audience. Perhaps this is the reason why many works of art feature scenes in everyday life and normal people rather than focusing solely on historical, mythological, or literary figures. Kabuki actors in elaborate costumes, courtesans putting on their makeup, and crowds of merchants and shoppers were common themes of Edo period ukiyo-e art. Woodblock prints were also used to mass-produce pictures of Edo as souvenirs, advertise cosmetic products, and spread the news of natural disasters or other important news. They also took an important role in children’s lives—ukiyo-e prints were used as illustrations in children’s books, telling stories of famous samurai, ghosts from horror stories, and Japanese onis. It is also the Edo period when we start to see the exchange between the Western world and Japan, and ukiyo-e prints that depicted the lives of foreigners were popular among the Japanese. 

Kamishibai performance in 1955 (Photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

In the 20th century, storytelling started to shift from flat two-dimensional paintings to something more lively, combined with performance art: kamishibai. While there were ancient forms of storytelling where the storyteller will tell a narrative looking at a work of art called “e-toki,” kamishibai combined technology from the Western world. For example, magic lanterns, an early form of slide projectors, were used to project the characters and backgrounds into the wall of a darkroom. Kamishibai storytelling involves illustrated boards called kamishibai-gaki and a wooden stage called butai. The storyteller would often travel from town to town carrying these on a bicycle. The stories of kamishibai were usually exciting adventure stories, sentimental tragedies, or humorous stories that resemble modern-day cartoons. Because these stories were performed to a live audience, the storyteller would often involve the children who were watching the show in their performance by quizzing them or handing out treats. The popularity of kamishibai led to its use not only as entertainment but also for educational and even propaganda purposes. In the 1930s, Christian missionaries that came from the West saw kamishibai as a method to spread biblical stories, and in the 1940s, during World War II and the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese government saw it as a way to insert nationalism in young minds by telling stories of glorious achievements of the Japanese government and military. However, even after World War ended, kamishibai stories remained popular in the streets. It was only until the widespread of television that led to a decrease in popularity as it kept young children in homes watching TV rather than going out in the streets to watch kamishibai performances. However, the invention of the television led to the emergence of a new form of Japanese storytelling—Anime. 

Scene from “Astro Boy” (Photo credit: Tezuka Osamu Official)

The first Japanese animation was created in the 1910s, as Western animation like the Walt Disney movies was introduced. However, it was not until the 60s and 70s when Japanese anime gained recognition as a unique form of art–before that, it was largely considered a rip-off of Western anime, and again most films were made for propaganda purposes by the government. In 1963, “Astro Boy” become Japan’s first commercially successful anime. The author of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka, is known as the godfather of manga. Most of the anime aesthetics that exist today, such as large stylized eyes, the young hero archetype that follows the hero’s journey, and the inclusion of Japanese folklore, were first seen in his manga. The 70s were an era of the Mecha genre, with the production of “Gundam,” “Mazinger Z,” and many others that involve robots and weaponry or take place in space. These animes often predict a dystopian future that reflected current issues in Japanese society. 

With the 80s came Studio Ghibli, an anime production house that created many masterpieces that still remain extremely popular in both the Western world and Japan. One of the most impactful animes of the 90s would be “Slamdunk” and “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” which gained worldwide recognition for their humor, worldbuilding, and philosophical themes. 

Japanese storytelling art has come a long way, starting from Buddhist drawings on paper scrolls to animated works that touch on a wide range of human experiences. While the essence of Japanese storytelling–its ability to convey emotion and the uniqueness of plot and characters– remains, Japanese storytelling art has become more multi-dimensional in both forms and content. Now, Japanese anime is even moving a step forward by asking its audience to interact with the art directly. Ghibli has established an amusement park where fans can experience living in the Ghibli universe, surrounded by characters and settings from the films.