Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rotting Corpses in Japanese Buddhist Artwork.

(This post is by Jane. Thanks Jane!)

The Kusōshi emaki is a hand scroll from early fourteenth century Japan which graphically depicts the nine stages of decay of a female corpse. This theme, called kusōzu, appears frequently in Japanese Buddhist artwork. The scroll is composed of ten narrative illustrations. The first is a pre-death portrait of the subject. She is depicted in aristocratic attire, with long black hair, a voluptuous figure, and red lips. The portrait suggests that this woman relished her beauty and wealth (Kanda, 25). In the second illustration the woman is newly deceased, lying on a raised mat and adorned with ornamental trimmings. Her undergarments are brushed aside and her right breast is exposed (Chin, 381).

The following eight illustrations show a shockingly frank and gruesome depiction of the corpse's decomposition. The lack of a background makes the rotting body appear all the more stark and isolated. The artist did not hold back at all; he confronts the viewer almost aggressively with the image of bodily decay. In fact, the precision of the anatomical depictions, which show the precise sinews of the muscles and the complete skeletal structure, suggests that the artist was painting an actual observed corpse (Kanda, 26).

The stages of decay proceed as follows: (0) pre-death portrait; (1) newly deceased corpse; (2) swelling; (3) rupture of the skin; (4) oozing of blood; (5) putrefaction; (6) discoloration and desiccation; (7) consumption by birds and animals; (8) skeleton; and (9) disjointing (Kanda, 26). The contrast between the first two illustrations and those that follow is significant. It seems as if the first two, which accentuate the sensual and feminine attractiveness of the subject, are meant to arouse desire in the viewer, making the lesson delivered by the following eight illustrations all the more poignant (Kanda 26).

To add insult to injury, the subject in the painting is not an anonymous woman. She is the ninth-century poet Ono no Komachi, known as one of the “six poetic geniuses” of Japan (Chin, 296). Perhaps not so coincidentally, Komachi's poetry is generally very physical in nature. She often refers to her physical body and uses some sexually suggestive imagery. Furthermore, her poetry frequently returns to the theme of fading female beauty (Chin, 300). The misogyny apparent in the use of this historical figure seems fairly obvious.

As Gail Chin points out, the symbol of the cadaver is significant to Buddhist thought because the corpse was one of three sights that prompted Siddhartha to seek the path of enlightenment. Paintings such as this one are meant to remind viewers of the impermanence of human existence and the repulsiveness the human body, especially the female one. They are meant to encourage renunciation of the body and to discourage sexual temptation and desires, specifically for Buddhist monks (Chin, 278). A similar use of the female cadaver as a symbol is seen in the literature of some early Indian Buddhists, who considered sexual desire identical to necrophilia since the female body secretes fluids comparable to the putrefaction of a corpse (Wilson, 60). However, the visual depiction of this theme is a specifically Japanese adaptation.

Modern scholars have generally interpreted the exclusive use of female corpses in the kusōzu genre as a testament to the prevalence of misogyny in Japanese Buddhist thought. Gail Chin denies this claim by arguing that because the female body is used to teach one of the most important Buddhist lessons, it must be inherently valued as representing Buddhist truth (Chin, 311). I however tend to agree with Bernard Faure, who criticizes Chin’s interpretation as being “overly charitable” and points out that the type of contemplation encouraged by this scroll, the “contemplation of the impure,” was intended exclusively for men (Faure, 276).

~ guest blogger, Jane Schroeder