While The Tale of Genji and Tales of Ise represented the standards for classical literature during the early Edo period, a lesser-known but deeply influential narrative also circulated in aristocratic and warrior circles. This was the story of the Buddhist monk Saigyō (1118–1190), the embodiment of elegance, reclusion, poetic expression, and the searching soul. His life had been pictorialized in a set of thirteenth-century handscrolls that loosely paralleled his biography with the life of the Gautama Buddha. Saigyō appealed to powerful elites because he was a high-born individual who rejected his privileged status to seek out the meaning of existence. The original pictorial biography spawned a number of medieval versions, including the imperial scroll set copied by Sōtatsu. His versions of the Saigyō story demonstrate not only his close ties to court and its visual treasures but also his dedication to understanding medieval models of depiction.
The three scenes illustrated here mark important moments in the monk-poet’s mythologized life. The first, from scroll 2, depicts the emotional reunion of Saigyō and his daughter, many years after he’d left his family to become a monk. He urges his daughter, now a beautiful woman, to follow in his footsteps and take Buddhist vows. The second scene, from scroll 3, is an expansive view that spans three sheets; Saigyō visits the famous Nachi Falls at Kumano (present-day Wakayama Prefecture). After hearing legendary tales about Kumano from a local priest, he dons a pilgrim’s white robes and goes to the waterfall, where he sits in prayer and admiration. The third scene, also from scroll 3, depicts Saigyō’s encounter with an old monk on the Musashino Plain in eastern Japan. Here, the depiction of deer and autumn grasses showcases the artist’s unique ability to combine picture and pattern. In all three scenes, Sōtatsu employed relaxed, lightly inked brushstrokes and the pooled-ink technique called tarashikomi, providing a contemporary sensibility quite distinct from the work’s medieval prototypes.
Life of Saigyō
Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40)
Japan, early 17th century
Two of three handscrolls
Ink, colors, and gold on paper
Agency for Cultural Affairs, Tokyo