What can be seen and what cannot be seen – the aesthetic sense of the Japanese medieval arts. Akira Amagasaki The Gakushuin journal of international studies Vol 4, March 2017: 1-14
There, I started with the citation so you can find the paper. This is more or less a transcript of a lecture delivered on the topic of modern etiquette and it’s connection to medieval manners of the royal family and of the samurai. They were not identical and they are, obviously, not the same as modern manners. The lecture was inspired by complaints about the spartan meeting room used when the Emperor met a Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Shoji screen, table and chairs and flowers on the table.
This aesthetic, which we would call minimalism is one of the things that attracted me to Japan as a youth. Those of my generation might also call it a “Zen look”. The aesthetic is highly influenced by the tea ceremony developed in the 16th century and it is this that the author discusses.
Why am I talking about this stuff? Well, aside from the fact that I don’t get paid to do these essays and can write about anything I want, there is a budo connection here. You’ve been told that budo is influenced by culture I’m sure. Well the formative budo culture was that of the Edo period, when there were actual samurai around teaching this stuff to other actual samurai. The aesthetics of the time influenced the budo quite a bit. I’m speaking of a time when the samurai ceased to be soldiers and became the functional ruling class. As such, many of them felt the need to improve themselves and they did this by looking to the nobles and to the arts of tea and Noh.
What I mean is that they borrowed concepts from these arts, as well as the “look”. Yes, martial arts of that day were influenced by the depiction of warriors in the theater just as warriors influenced those depictions. Two things can’t be in the same general space without mutual influence. Movies affect modern martial arts in 2017, why not the theatre in 1617. The language of Noh was well established by then, and available as metaphor which quite often becomes concept. Zeami Motokiyo was born in 1363 and wrote his great manual, the Fushi kaden (book of the flower, also the Kadensho), in the early years of the 15th century and it was here that the concept of Yugen is very clearly defined.
Yugen? You know it, if for no other reason than you know a dojo or two called the Yugenkan. We’ll come back to yugen but how about your “samurai walk”? Look to Zeami in 1400 for the reason you don’t show the judges the bottoms of your feet when you’re grading.
Amagasaki points out that Japanese royalty weren’t always minimalists, in the 12th century their homes were “bursting with colour and were adorned with abundant amounts of gold”. At the end of that century the samurai had taken power and their more spartan lifestyle (not a lot of brocade chairs on a battlefield) influenced the nobles. This was the beginning of Yugen, which is something that is “faint, dark, and hard to see”. In a nutshell, imagine a mountainside full of flowers and leaves turning colour. Nice yes? Now imagine a mist that covers most of it so that you only see hints and glimpses. Your imagination fills in the rest. Is this not better?
No? Go to an image search, look up “artistic nude” now glance around and decide which photos are more artistic, more interesting, those you are likely to look at for more than a few seconds. Is it the black and white, silhouetted or out of focus images of barely glimpsed skin that appeal, or the “glamour shot” with hands on boobs and pouty look, or the spread shots of porn in glorious colour and pore-defining resolution?
The imagination is SO much more powerful than a 24 megapixel sensor and “perfect” lighting. That’s because when you fill in the image you do so with all your experience and all your feelings. If it’s all laid out like a Hollywood blockbuster written by a committee of studio execs, there’s noplace to go except to the store to buy the embeded products they are hyping. Can we say Nokia media center in the car James Kirk drives over a cliff in the rebooted Star Trek? Product placement become proof of an “alternate universe”?.
So what is yugen in the martial arts? Well we spoke of “it” a while ago and I said it was just the techniques of kendo federation iai and jo. But “it” is more than that isn’t it? There is that undefinable something, that presence, that kigurai, that fukaku and hinkaku that we keep hearing about. Where does that stuff come from? Where does that “samurai spirit” that is supposed to be so unbeatable (except of course by Weapons of Mass Destruction, which can’t see yugen) show up? All those concepts arise from Yugen. The very fact that “if you try to demonstrate them they go away” is your clue that they arise from the hidden, they arise from the emotional response of the observer, not simply from the actions of the demonstrator.
To put it briefly, why is a technically perfect, self-conscious copy of an iai kata from the ZNKR manual so damned boring?
Yugen is more than just imagination, it is a connection to the emotions, and tapping into the emotions is a good way to control your audience. That’s why Zeami said it was important, that’s why “it” is important when you are fighting. That’s why the western guys worry that they have lost the body to body instruction of an unbroken lineage even if they have really good manuals. That’s why despots say so little yet have crowds kissing their feet.
What cannot be seen cannot be refuted.
August 15, 2017