The Spirit of Asobi as seen in Sotatsu’s Work

Packard, Keiko I.
Supervisor: Dr. P.R. Stanley-Baker

The intent of this paper is to analyze in detail the spirit of asobi. This spirit is often translated into English as ‘playfulness’, but it is much more than that. Actually, it might be one of the most significant characteristics of the Japanese arts. This paper attempts to describe and evaluate a tendency that in some ways is a mystery because even though this spirit is easily seen inside Japan, it seems to be less appreciated outside Japan. The topic of asobi could touch many aspects of the Japanese arts, yet it seems that the purpose of this paper is best served by focusing on some concrete evidence. This paper discusses certain characteristics of asobi through Tawaraya Sotatsu’s 俵屋宗達 works, which have some of the significant characteristics of Japanese art, such as decorativeness, narrative style and emotional evocativeness. The artworks of Tawaraya Sotatsu, who is regarded as a founder of Japanese decorative art, provides a variety of examples with which to illustrate these relationships.

Although the details about Sotatsu’s life are not clear, we know that he was active primarily from 1600 to 1630. During the span of his life, the political and artistic environment changed dramatically. The first recorded evidence of Sotatsu describes him as a mere artisan, a maker of fans and underdrawings. However, Sotatsu was able to attract the interest of some famous artists in Kyoto, with whom he collaborated, as well as the interest of rich merchants and members of the imperial family through his artworks. Eventually he achieved the top ranking title for a painter, Hokkyo.

This paper provides a comprehensive review of the artworks attributed to Sotatsu. By reviewing his work in chronological order, it shows how his style developed from small and commercial items into fine arts displayed on sliding doors and screens. In addition, this paper analyzes the various ways Sotatsu shared his own asobi, including asobi in techniques, such as brushwork and composition, and his general sense of humour.

A major aspect of Sotatsu’s art is an absentminded playfulness which was appealing not only to Sotatsu’s contemporaries, but also to viewers several hundred years later. In particular, Sotatsu’s emotional expressiveness displays his affection for his subject matter. Furthermore, in his art Sotatsu celebrates a kind of carnival culture, turning serious subjects into humorous ones, inverting the traditional order and celebrating laughter for its own sake.

In a certain sense the spirit of asobi, as seen through Sotatsu, is a type of emotional response, yet it seems to touch a deeper nerve in all who view Sotatsu’s artworks. The spirit of asobi, seen in Sotatsu’s work, is shown to share similarities with the concept of carnival, as identified by Bakhtin. This principle may be seen to be rooted in archetypal aspects of human behaviour, and consequently to have contributed to the widespread and lasting appeal of Sotatsu’s artistic achievement. By understanding Sotatsu’s artworks, it is possible to develop a better understanding of the spirit of asobi as defined here.