The Same But Different – Looking for Archetypes in Japanese Art

Yoshikazu, The Battle of Dan-no-Ura of 1185 – the hero Yoshitsune performs his 8-boat leap

When putting together the current show at the Toshidama Gallery, I was struck by how archetypal are the figures in Japanese mythology (here I mean real, historical characters who have been mythologised as well as characters from fantasy). Although now out of favour, Carl Jung’s (1875 – 1961) lifelong investigation of archetypes in western mythology remains a persistent background analysis of everything from Star Wars movies to celebrity culture. During the middle of the last century, Jungian analysis rivaled Freud’s  work on the sub-conscious and achieved still greater popularity when it was co-opted (something that I think would also prove to be its downfall) by the New Age movement in the 1970’s and 1980’s. So out of favour is Jung’s work that it might be necessary to summarise his basic theory.

Jung proposed that myths (many, if not all, common to all cultures), were a representation of a deeper, unconscious, internal life that rivalled the the theoretical ideas of Freud and which focused on environment and experience as causation of psychological states of mind. Jung developed the idea of the collective unconscious: a universal map that finds a manifestation in tales and images of characters, objects and situations – what we now call art and myth. His work has been hugely persuasive and influential both at a theoretical and a popular level, but despite its claims for universal application, nobody seems hitherto to have applied his ideas to Japanese culture – which is odd, considering the nice fit that so many dramas of Japanese myth have with his programme of cultural (unconscious) universality.

It would take too long here adequately to summarise Jung, and still longer to make an original analysis of Japanese archetypes. I will however attempt to outline the basic ideas and to see how Jung’s thinking fits with Japanese models. Jung’s basic archetypes are, simply put:

The Hero (see top): Characters who exemplify this archetype to a greater or lesser extent are normally cited as, Oedipus, Perseus, Jason, Joseph, Moses, Elijah, Jesus Christ, Siegfried, Arthur, Robin Hood.

The Outcast:  A figure who is banished from a social group for a crime against his comrades. The outcast is usually destined to become a wanderer from place to place (e.g., Cain, the Wandering Jew, the Ancient Mariner).

The Devil: This character offers worldly goods, fame, or knowledge to the protagonist in exchange for possession of his soul, for example; Lucifer, Mephistopheles or Satan.

The Woman Figure has four subtypes:

Kuniyoshi, the Four Seasons – Summer

The Earth Mother(shown left): Symbolic of fruition, abundance and fertility, this character traditionally offers spiritual and emotional nourishment to those with whom she comes in contact (e.g., Mother Nature, Mother Country).

The Temptress: Characterized by sensuous beauty, this woman is one to whom the protagonist is physically attracted and who ultimately brings about his downfall (e.g., Delilah, the Sirens, Cleopatra).

Kunisada, Beauty

The Platonic Ideal (shown right): This woman is a source of inspiration and a spiritual ideal, for whom the protagonist or author has an intellectual rather than a physical attraction (e.g., Dante’s Beatrice, Petrarch’s Laura, most romantic heroines).

The Unfaithful Wife: A woman, married to a man she sees as dull and unimaginative, and is physically attracted to a more virile and desirable man – Guinevere or Madame Bovary for example.

Kunisada, Yosaburo and Otomi (Star Crossed Lovers)

The Star- Crossed Lovers (shown left): A young man and woman enter an ill-fated love affair which ends tragically in the death of either or both of the lovers (e.g., Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Tristan and Isolde.)

All of these archetypes find themselves in similar, archetypal situations that are more or less familiar to western readers. The task is usually to save the kingdom, to win a partner or to perform an impossible deed to reassume his rightful position. Again in the west, Arthur pulling the sword from the stone or Beowulf slaying Grendel spring to mind. Another often cited scene is the heroic initiation – the depiction of an adolescent becoming a man. These situations are more often than not seen in the context of the journey, either in search of something or a dramatic descent into hell – The Odyssey, the Inferno or Joyce’s Ulysses.

Places often have special meaning and can be typically associated with primordial forces. Jung cites Mount Olympus, the Underworld or the heavens. For the Japanese as we shall see, Mount Fuji carries associations of primordial divinity and the source of various quests.

Anyone familiar with Japanese woodblock prints, with Japanese myth – or indeed with modern Japanese manga will by now have recognised several correlations with these western archetypes and yet curiously no one seems to have applied Jung to Japanese myth at all. Of course the issue remains current as to whether ideas are transmitted culture to culture throughout history or whether ideas and impulses spring from a common human need – the universalist argument. Either way it’s hard not to fit Japanese myth very neatly into the western framework of archetypes – the ghosts, as it were, of our collective unconscious.

Kunichika, Tsuchigumo with the hero Raiko

Running back over Jung’s basic set of characters, it is easy to drop in the great figures from Japanese history, theatre and culture. Japanese history is certainly not short of heroes…  from Yorimitsu to Yoshitsune and the Soga brothers, the archetypal hero litters the history of Japan and its many myths. For Jung, the hero not only had to be strong, brave, virtuous and principled, he also had to embark upon a ritualised quest and perform particular tasks.  The cultural writer Joseph Campbell laid out the task of the hero in his seminal book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, inventing the idea of the monomyth… “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” This definition could be applied to any number of Japanese heroes from Raiko, whose quest in search of a ghostly skull takes him to the brink of death at the hands of the Earth Spider Tsuchigumo (above); to the great historical character of Yoshitsune, pictured performing his legendary eight boat leap in this superb triptych by Utagawa Yoshikazu(top of page). Likewise the great heroes of the Chushingura partake of a classically archetypal quest in their bid to restore honour to their fallen master. (link)

Kunichika, Great Heroes in Robber Plays

There are no shortage of outcasts and anti-heroes in Japanese myths. One of the outstanding and archetypal outcasts is the character of Ishikawa Goemon (pictured right). Goemon was a prolific thief and Robin Hood figure who attempted an assassination on Mashiba Hideyoshi. The classic outcast, Goemon was captured and sentenced to be boiled in oil with his young son, in an iron kettle still called goemonburo (Goemon Bath).  Of course, there is also a similar proliferation of demons in Japanese myth, well illustrated in some of the best Japanese woodblock prints of the nineteenth century.

The representation of women as archetypes in Japanese culture is more complex; some Japanese commentators (for example Toshio Kawai) have argued that in distinction to western archetypes, the prevailing force in Japanese culture is feminine. Feminists have argued that Jung’s female archetypes (crudely put – mother, whore, goddess) reinforce sexist identities of women that are not true. In Japan there are plenty of examples of these archetypes, and a seeming desire to codify them into easy categories – Kunichika’s 36 Good and Evil Beauties being a prime example of many such collections.

Kunichika, the Evil Omatsu

In Kunichika’s fine series, various women from history are allotted a definition of virtuous or evil. In fact these chime remarkably well with Jung’s roles for females in his own analysis. In the current exhibition we can see that Kuniyoshi provides us with a delicate example of the nurturing type in his print of the Four Seasons (above left) – using a woman to symbolise Summer, literally nurturing growth; Whereas Kunichika portrays the female bandit Hitomaru (a common motif in ukiyo-e) as the unfaithful wife. Star crossed lovers were such a commonplace in kabuki theatre and Japanese prints that the authorities were obliged to ban the subject because of copycat suicides – the story of Yosaburo and Otomi (above right) being typical of the genre.

Chikanobu, Kintaro

Elsewhere in Japanese myth we find remarkable crossovers with western counterparts – I’m thinking here of the Divine Child archetype. We see the archetype of the Divine Child reflected in various faith traditions and myths from around the world – the most prominent being the Christmas story. Christ is an archetypal Divine Child. His father is God. He comes to the world as a helpless baby, yet people look to him with awe and hope of a new beginning. He brings peace and order to the earth. In Japan, the story of Kintaro, who was raised in the wild, some say by his mother, others by an old hag, is just such an archetype. He was exceptionally strong and willful and became friends with the creatures of the mountains. He is a popular legend in Japanese folklore even today and is traditionally shown with monkeys, with whom he was able to communicate; and with a chopper, with which he performed great feats of strength. As an adult he became a famous and fierce samurai and retainer of Minamoto no Yorimitsu and the boyhood legend has over time become conflated with the real warrior and historical figure Sakata no Kintoki. The parallels with a popular Jungian hero Siegfried are uncanny.

Jungian archetypal situations are fundamental to Japanese myth – quests, journeys, tasks and restoration (rebirth) are the common motifs of Japanese folklore. We have seen how exactly Raiko’s story fits not only Jung’s but Joseph Campbell’s definitions but there are so many more of these miraculous hero tales that could be equally poignant. Minamoto no Tametomo’s journey and his struggle with a monstrous fish for one and the countless legends of Yoshitsune and Benkei  as well.

An analysis of Japanese culture along these lines is perhaps overdue. The persistence of these stories belies the suggestion that they are a niche area of study, now confined to history. The work of Jung and Campbell has had a monumental impact in the west and especially so in Hollywood where these ideas underpin the writing of so many blockbuster movies such as the Star Wars epics. The myths of Japan are every bit as influential – the heroes of the Minamoto and the Taira clans are the bedrock of Manga and anime culture that has flooded the west in recent years and it is perhaps time to look more closely at our common cultures and motivations.

The current show at Toshidama Gallery runs until 30th August 2013.  Prints in the current show have a 30% discount for Newsletter Subscribers.

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
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