Review: Yoshiaki Shimizu's Multiple Commemorations: The Vegetable Nehan of Ito Jakuchu
Author: Erin C. Harding, 1998
In his article "Multiple Commemorations: The Vegetable Nehan of Ito Jakuchu" Yoshiaki Shimizu does an excellent job arguing that this apparently jovial work is in fact a multi-faceted commemorative piece with deep roots in religious and artistic tradition as well as personal philosophy and emotion.
To begin his argument, Shimizu provides ample background information on the tradition of Parinirvana (or Nehan) paintings, including their uses and the flexible tradition of iconographic symbolism employed in these paintings. In this section of the discussion he also includes an effective definition of commemorative works that provides crucial support for his argument. He then moves on to support the idea of the possibility of vegetable Buddhahood and it acceptance in Japanese society. He also examines the use of vegetables as aesthetic, societal and scientific concepts in Jakuchu's Japan. Finally he demonstrates the personal significance of the imagery in the life of the artist. This argument leads to the final conclusion that the Vegetable Nehan is a commemoration of the death of Jakuchu's brother, the demise of his family business, as well a commemoration of the death of the Buddha. By using the format of a multiple commemoration, Jakuchu allows his brother to be a participant in the death of the Buddha, and suggests the ideal concept of the universal influence of Buddha's teaching, even extending to the vegetable world, thus making it more accessible to everyone.
Shimizu's argument is highly effective. This effectiveness begins with his logically organized argument structure and his blatant declaration of the conditions and terms of the argument. From the beginning he states the intent of his argument, his main thesis and the process by which he plans to argue it. He clearly outlines the questions that must be answered in order to come to his conclusion. He then reminds the reader of these questions as he continues through his discussion, usually pulling together a contained answer at the conclusion of each step. Additionally the author is very clear about the assumptions that he makes in order to justify the continuation of his investigation. This is crucial in that the author admits that his conclusions are directly dependent on certain ideas, and by extension admits that if any of these assumptions are ever disproved, his conclusion could be negated. Finally Shimizu is conscientious of the dependence of his argument on a particular set of terminology and concepts. He takes the time to include his definition of these terms in order to assure that the reader is following his line of reasoning and understanding the connections he is making.
Some of the most effective content of this article are the discussions of the historical basis of the "open form" image used in Nirvana paintings and of the vegetable tradition throughout Japanese culture. Shimizu discusses the traditional difference between "closed form" iconic images which require very specific symbols and attributes used in a set form, and "open form" images which rely on a basic core story which the image is built around employing any number of allegorical representations. He gives precedence in a number of paintings and literary works that indicate that representations of the Parinirvana fall into the "open form" category of images. Frequently the artist of these devotional images chooses to use only certain symbols, or some of the imagery, or chooses to combine multiple events into a single image when representing the death of Buddha. This freedom of interpretation revolves around the core story of the death of the Buddha and the mourning of his followers, but the actual depiction is variable and left to the artist. This "open form" and its popularity in Nirvana paintings is one of the elements which provides a precedence and allows for the conclusion that the Vegetable Nehan is indeed a commemorative work in the spirit of the Parinirvana scenes. Shimizu also provides effective precedence for the use of vegetables, and most importantly the daikon radish in Japanese art. He shows that this form is aesthetically admired from the early fifteenth century and that it often carries definite social connotations. He is even able to provide evidence that the radish was considered "first among the vegetable species" (Shimizu, 226) and was thus the most appropriate vegetable form for the Buddha himself to take. Shimizu also details the debate over the universality of Buddha-nature, and specifically whether or not it is present in the vegetable kingdom. He seems to indicate that the school of thought from which much of Japanese Buddhist belief derives, the Tendai, strongly supported the idea that the Buddha-nature was indeed present in the vegetable kingdom and that vegetables were capable of attaining Buddhahood. Both the extensive discussion of the free form of the representation of the Parinirvana and the cultural tradition of the representation of the vegetable are effectively argued and are crucial elements in answering Shimizu's two main questions: "What makes Jakuchu's painting Buddhist; and what are the cultural traditions that lead to this particular work?" (Shimizu, 203)
It is in the discussion of the images themselves that I find Shimizu's argument lacking. His textual analysis is excellent, and he has in fact chosen some very intriguing visual samples as well. Unfortunately his visual analysis of the works he presents is almost nonexistent. He frequently mentions qualities in works, such as the wilting leaves in The Vegetable, however he fails to mention how he sees these qualities in the art. More importantly he fails to adequately analyze the Vegetable Nehan itself. He does a brief visual analysis at the beginning of the essay, but when actually comparing it to other works and ideas, he fails to provide visual evidence. For example he mentions that "Jakuchu's figures are closest in morphology to non-Buddhist images.," yet he fails to identify what is non-Buddhist about their appearance. He admits that this non-Buddhist appearance is a paradox with the Buddhist meaning which he has adequately proven with textual analysis, but he fails to effectively demonstrate that this conflict even exists visually. Even the visual analysis at the beginning seems to require more attention. He compares various elements in the painting to apparently common iconographic elements in many Nirvana paintings, yet he fails to identify most of these elements when analyzing the other Nirvana paintings in order to show a correlation.
Despite the lack of detailed visual analysis of his chosen images, Shimizu presents a very effective argument about the meaning and intents of Ito Jakuchu'sVegetable Nehan. His historical analysis provides a convincing argument that this image is much more than a visual parody. He suggests that it is deeply rooted in commemorative tradition and that it ties into the artist's own personal roots as well as the cultural and spiritual soul of his country. Jakuchu eludes to personal pain and religious controversy in a single image. Shimizu's powerful argument suggests that this visual allegory was not random or hasty, but in fact deeply ingrained in the planning of this initially simple appearing image. This article provides an effective and comprehensive evaluation of Jakuchu's elusive work and clearly enlightens the reader to the underlying themes therein. His historical analysis is well-founded and worthwhile and his comprehensive insight appreciable.
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