- a deceased tumblelog project by Bruno de Figueiredo -

Behold the fowls of the air - an historical view of Tori-Emaki

Hekijae nara Kokuritsu Hakubutsukanzou (pictures of evil spirits being driven away), Nara National Museum
Hekijae Nara Kokuritsu Hakubutsukanzou, or Pictures of evil spirits being driven away

To a large extent, the language, culture and traditions of a country like Japan derive from the greatest of Eastern empires: China. However the history of the Emakimono is known to have preceded that of its Chinese refinement before eventually finding its way into the Japanese tradition. The first use of the hand scroll in the Orient originally took place in India – that other powerful beacon of culture and tradition in Asia – where it was used for religious purposes in the proliferation of Buddhist ideals. Having arrived to China, the hand scroll techniques were largely improved, especially in the development of a new and more consistent mixture of Indian Ink. Later introduced to Japan, the scrolled paper was adapted into a unique pictorial format in an alternative to the traditional parchment used to convey their Holy Scriptures.

Excerpt from the (visual) History of the Kegon Sect emakimono

Of course, by the 11th century, Japan’s most dominating drawing and painting techniques were analogous to those of the earlier Tang Dynasty in neighboring China, a style that was of critical influence to many other countries in the continent such as Korea or Vietnam. As the Japanese do seem to have a peculiar tendency to adapt and improve other culture’s original ideas (a lesson easily learned by studying the history of videogames), the scrolls soon became the format of visual narratives that were of great popularity among the nobility throughout the period of Japanese history corresponding to the European Middle-Age. Like the Tang Dynasty painting, the scrolls portrayed common scenes from the life of the upper crust; yet, eventually, they also came to embody the historical accounts, as well as the myths and legends.

Often presented as the far relative of modern manga, the Emakimono (word meaning scroll of pictures) reached its zenith with the depiction of popular legends such as Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari (the Tale of Genji), translated into a series of illustrated scrolls combining both the written passages of Shikibu’s masterpiece and fine quality paintings – in a fashion experimented earlier by the great poet Wang-Wei. Numerous scrolls were crafted with the coming centuries until the arrival of modern times when this age-old format grew outdated and quickly replaced by newer printing techniques.

While the revivalism of ancient painting techniques is plentiful in the context of new media, very few projects of the digital age have honored the emaki tradition with greater distinction than Tori-Emaki. The first and primary observation acquired from this multimedia experiment is that it does not consist of a game, yet an interactive piece devoid of any mandatory objectives making exceptional use of the PlayStation Eye technology. A digital emaki fills the screen as the foreground is filled with a flock of dark birds (the word Tori meaning bird in Japanese) that follow a reflective sphere manifesting itself whenever there is an input of motion. According to the trajectory of the movement, the sphere itself will guide the birds to move from left to right and from top to bottom. The movement of birds, together with the fleeting leaves from Sakura trees, enhances the sense of dynamism in an otherwise static picture style.

One of the most defining characteristics of the traditional picture rolls, and indeed from the painting style prevalent during the Tang Dynasty, lies in the employment of diverse techniques that inspire a sense of depth to the picture: either by use of geometric perspectives or by the cunning differentiation of figure sizes that define spatial gradation. In Tori-Emaki, the vertical scrolling inspires an increased sense of space that derives chiefly from the employment of a invisible layers that blur and apply transparency to objects appearing from the top and bottom ends of the screen. Other than a single bitmap, this digital emaki is composed of numerous individual objects detached from one another.

As with the actual emakimono, the depiction of landscape and natural elements bears both the traits of naturalism and artistic distortion of Heian Japan.

In Tori-Emaki, all the visible elements are entirely original, having been inspired by a selection of medieval Japanese scroll work and supervised by experts in the matter that guaranteed a exquisitely genuine appearance. Aside from a splendorous sight, this program also offers a rich thematic background examining a cross-section of the ancient Japanese society, its singular customs and myth. Depictions of horsed warriors carrying long blades over the battlefield and of fishermen struggling against the fierce sea creatures contrast with the quietude and leisure of outdoor family banquets; of geishas practicing their singing and shamisen playing; of lovers exchanging glances between the cherry-blossom trees. High on the mountains, the upper layers of this chronicle are crowded with the gigantic divinities, their depiction symbolizing a unique function within the polytheist creed of Shintô.

In order to increase the intensity of this interactive piece, suggestive sounds were inserted in accordance to the contents on the screen.

Destitute of any ludic value, Tori-Emaki stands as a work of rare plenitude and integrity that evades the common video game console user interests. It consists of a brief moment of discovery that is not subdued to difficulty or challenge, merely the desire to open a window into new forms of knowledge and information using technologies that are by no means exclusive to the practice of games. As we seem to be crossing a a decisive moment in the rediscovery of meaningful interactions using digital systems, this atypical scene of remote times and customs helps to enrich the field of the so-called “non-gaming” by providing a functional example of how creative minds needn’t be subjected to the (often restraining) tenets of game design.