The subject of this netsuke is better understood with familiarity of Japanese literature. It depicts an old woman with her mouth agape, lips almost to her ears. The back half of her head is bald while in the front locks of hair come down to her elbows. Her eyes can be seen under a sunken brow which expresses a grimace of suffering. She is half-naked with her back exposed and protruding ribs and spine. Her thin arms are wrapped around a wooden plank. This plank is in fact a gravestone known in Sanskrit as stūpa and in Japanese as sotoba. It is a wooden board with a rounded end at the top bearing a letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, which is barely visible on this piece. These boards were placed on grave sites.
The subject of the netsuke is a 9th-century poet who was very well-known at the time and later became legendary for her poetic talents. The Japanese have her listed as one of the six greatest poets in Japan of all time. However, she was famous not only for her poetic talent: she was a stunning beauty and a lady-in-waiting of the Imperial Court.
While hardly any reliable information about her biography has survived, legend tells many stories of how her beauty ruined or subdued many men. One particular story is very didactic.
There was a young man who was in love with the poet and tried to have the feelings returned. The young beauty, however, gave him one condition: he was to come to her house every night for 100 days and remain beside her house no matter the weather. If he passed the test, she would be his. The man was so in love with her that every night he came to her house and stayed until morning, in rain and snow, and only on the 100th night was he unable to come. According to one legend he died on the way to her, while another legend explains that his father had died and the man's filial duties won over love. The poet was condemned for her behavior and regretted what she had done. She left the court and went into the mountains never to be seen again. Only rarely would stories be heard in the capital of how she had been seen as a beggarly woman in tattered clothes.
The subject of this netsuke references a play of the noh theater which tells the story of how many years after the poet was alive, two monks were walking along a road and came to a cemetery where they saw an old woman sitting on a gravestone. They went up to her and told her how disrespectful it was to sit on a grave, to which the old woman answered that it was more important for the living than the dead and continued into a religious debate with them. The monks were surprised by how wise, smart, and educated the old woman seemed to be, and they asked her who she was. She then revealed her true form to them turning into the young beauty with long black hair and beautiful clothing. She told them her story and that she was actually the poet Ono no Komachi.
The monks were overcome with respect for her and realized that this was the true meaning of retribution, of the Buddhist idea of karma where any bad deed committed in life will inevitably come to an end and with it bring karmic retribution. The old woman who could not find peace but instead had to wander around cities or sit at a grave hugging the headstone was serving out her punishment for being so cold-hearted and inattentive to the feelings which were shown to her.
Such stories from Japanese literature and mythology are important to know in order to understand even something as small as netsuke. Sometimes familiarity with particular texts, plays, or legends of the past is required to fully appreciate the real wealth and depth of the subjects depicted in these pieces. Allusion to Japanese poetry or poets of the Heian period (9th century) is not commonly found in netsuke carvings. The first netsuke came about in the 9th century as an art form borrowed from China, and by the 18th century there were a large number of subject matters which were interpreted versions of Chinese subjects. Over time, strictly Japanese motifs were added to these, though classical Japanese literature did not contribute any rich subject matters which could capture the attention of carvers of the Tokugawa period (17-19th century) enough for them to be depicted. This piece is a rare, almost exclusive, case where the poet is the subject of the piece.
A close look reveals how the carver showed her thin arms hugging the board. Her leg can be seen, foot bent, holding onto the wooden board used as a headstone. The poet seems in appearance like a ghost or demon. She resembles the mountain witch Yama-uba. This particular appearance is likely due to the fact that the woman shown is not the living beauty or even the living old woman who wanders the cities; instead, it is the character of the noh theater who appeared before the monks several centuries after the poet’s death.
During the Edo period, stories of ghosts and other demonic beings became popular. These stories were known as kaidan and were first told to one another orally and later in the 17th century they began to be printed as a collection of stories gaining wide popularity. There was a tradition to gather during the hottest nights of July and light lanterns and tell ghost stories to each other. At the end of each story, one of the lanterns would be put out and the stories would continue until the last lantern was out. The cold sweat which would appear on the listeners who believed in the truth of the stories was meant to cool them down in the heat. It is possible that the both moral and scary story of the poet became popular due to the love and ubiquity of kaidan at the time.
At the back of the netsuke the signature of the carver Anraku is clearly seen. Anraku lived and worked in Osaka during the first half of the19th century. Looking at his other work, one can see that he carved predominantly out of ivory and used a light stain. This netsuke is also from ivory, which the brown tone clearly gives away. However, in this case, the piece has been completely stained. The reason behind the carver’s decision is hard to say since this approach to completely stain the ivory in a cherrywood color is very unusual for netsuke.
Details with an even darker stain can be seen on the hem of the material wrapped around Ono no Komachi. Decorative foliage called karakusa, a Chinese grass, can also be seen. This grass was typically applied to expensive brocade fabrics and in the case of this netsuke appears to be the carver’s way of hinting at the former status of the old woman as a lady-in-waiting of the Imperial Court. Many of Anraku’s pieces have been preserved and show off his manner of carving and staining. They can be described as being masterfully detailed with his inclination to carve intricate netsuke. The fact that he stained the whole surface of this netsuke is surprising since by doing so he has practically leveled out his carving. The darker a piece is stained, the harder it is to make out the details.
However, this does not take away from its charm. If anything, it adds to it — the unevenness of color occurring from use over time has highlighted the protruding areas and have given the piece a charm from being used and held over the years. Someone once loved it, once rubbed it on their nose and left a mark. There is excitement in knowing these pieces were once used and in imagining them hanging from a shopkeeper’s belt or in the hands of someone who had just had a smoke and his rubbing his beloved possession on his nose. This kind of a piece gives one a lot to think about.
Curator for the collection of Japanese art, Eastern Department of the State Hermitage