Shuten Showdown


Samurai Take Down Ogre With Sake in Centuries-Old Japanese Tale

At first glance, the paintings look like traditional, if not always exceptional, works of Japanese art, full of incredible detail, vibrant colors and peaceful landscapes — including cherry blossoms like the ones that just made the Tidal Basin glow pink. But behind the façade are the centuries-old makings of a modern-day thriller.

“The Tale of Shuten Doji,” on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, uses books, folding screens, hand scrolls, hanging scrolls and sketches to depict the legend of Shuten Doji, an ogre who lived in the mountains near Kyoto and abducted the city’s beauties to use as his servants before he murdered them. Naturally the emperor dispatches his most able samurai, Minamoto Yorimitsu (948-1021), or Raiko, to find and kill the ogre. Under the protection of Shinto gods, Raiko and his heroic team of warriors (disguised as pilgrim monks) find Shuten Doji and render him unconscious with a sake potion that the gods gave them. While he slumbers, they behead Shuten Doji, battle his monstrous horde, and rescue the women.

“It’s a story of intrigue, deception, lust, blood, cannibalism, gore, and for those of you who are a bit squeamish, a few cherry blossoms are sprinkled here and there among the paintings,” said James T. Ulak, deputy director of the Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art. “The exhibition, to my mind, shows the Japanese consummate artistic skill in presenting an elegant tension between beauty and violence.”

The tale, which has been an obsession in Japanese culture for centuries, could easily transition from paintings into a motion picture. Indeed, the hand scrolls are the roots of modern Japanese cinematography and animation, including manga and anime, according to Ulak. For instance, they call to mind the storyboards still used today to map out movies and TV shows.

The hand scrolls, the longest of which measures 78 feet, are “unrolled gradually to about arm’s width, so they were intended for relatively small audiences,” said Ann Yonemura, curator of the exhibition and senior associate curator of Japanese art for the Freer and Sackler galleries. “You could imagine that such a long scroll, especially a set of three, is kind of the equivalent of a feature-length video.”

The scrolls are read from right to left, while the tale moves counterclockwise around the folding screens. Clouds create the effect of cinematic fades and dissolves, indicating changes in time and space, like the effects of zooming in and out, Yonemura explained. Meanwhile, delicate calligraphy tells the tale between the paintings’ depiction of it. To help exhibition visitors follow the stories, the gallery has provided charts and wall text following the images as they move right to left.

The 29 objects in the exhibition, mostly from the gallery’s permanent collection, come from Japan’s Edo period (1615-1868). They include a three-set scroll painted on silk by Kano Shoun (1637-1702), a product of Japan’s renowned Kano school. “The quality of painting of these scrolls is extraordinary,” said Yonemura, noting that an imperial prince and two high officials of the imperial court did the calligraphy for the set.

The scrolls, which boast brilliant colors and metallics, are well preserved, probably because they were such high-level commissions and because the owners did not display them often, according to Yonemura.

Of particular note is a 19th-century hanging scroll titled “Shuten Doji on Mount Oe Viewing Cherry Blossoms” by Suzuki Kiitsu. In it, cherry blossoms become a metaphor for the brevity of human existence, Yonemura said. “In this piece, Shuten Doji is up on a ledge attended by some of the kidnapped ladies who were forced into servitude,” she explained. “Looking at this, he is totally enjoying his luxurious life, and he thinks it’s going to go on for a long time, no worries. But below, a young lady is washing a garment in the stream, and we can imagine, from knowing how this story evolves, that those warriors are just outside of the picture, about to enter unseen by Shuten Doji, about to hear her story about how to get to him and take him out, and he is oblivious to the fact that the life that he knows is just at the point of coming to an end.

“I just find this a fascinating encapsulation of that moment.”

The sketches in the exhibition were done on fans and are incomplete but provide clear notes for how the artist intended to finish them. “They probably weren’t made for use as personal fans, but rather for mounting in an album or perhaps even on a folding screen,” Yonemura noted. “Instead of showing them in a framed, sort of rectilinear format, we have created this scattered effect with our designers to emulate the effect that they would have had in a typical Japanese display.”

Yonemura’s goal is to make Shuten Doji a household name. Certainly, the main elements in the story resonate with those of the classic battle between good and evil, the underpinnings of any great story. “As this exhibition will reveal,” Yonemura concluded, “the contemporary Japanese adventures that dazzle and explode from page and screen reflect a highly developed tradition of narrative illustration that extends back for centuries.”

“The Tale of Shuten Doji” runs through Sept. 20 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave., SW. For more information, please call (202) 633-1000 or visit

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.