Story IV | The Red-Nosed Lover

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Poetic allusion and autumn longing in Antique Lacquer

‘But then his mood changed, and he came to suppose that she might still have virtues to recommend her, that touching her in the dark might have left certain mysteries unrevealed, and that he did want to see her properly. (later at dawn) I knew it!, he thought in despair. Next came the real disaster: her nose. He noted it instantly. …Long and lofty that nose was, slightly drooping toward the end, and with at the tip a blush of red – a real horror.’ (Tyler, R. The Tale of Genji. p. 123 and 124.)

This quote is taken from the 6th chapter of the Tale of Genji (first published 11th century), The Safflower, Suetsumuhana, named after the red nose of Prince Genji’s conquest, the daughter of the late Prince Hitachi. Suetsmuhana is ignored by Genji until some nine chapters later, after his exile to Suma and on his return journey to court, he passes an overgrown, dilapidated house that seems somewhat familiar. The chapter is called A Waste of Weeds, Yomogiu. Recalling, with some compassion, this highborn, yet unappealing, red-nosed woman unsupported since her father’s death, he sends a retainer into the house to inquire if she still lives there. Suetsumuhana, living in abject poverty and having lost most of her faithful servants, has in the interim maintained her faith in Genji’s love, his return to her and his material support. Genji decides to enter,

‘Now that I am here, I myself shall seek her out through her trackless waste,
to see whether all these weeds have left her as she was then,

And he alighted after all, whereupon Koremitsu (the retainer) led him in, brushing the dew from before him with his riding whip.“ I have an umbrella, my lord,” he said, because the drops from on high recalled cold autumn showers; ‘ (Tyler p.309.)

The affair ends well with Genji, ‘especially attentive to her needs, sending servants to clear the weeds from her grounds…She languished two years in her father’s house and then Genji brought her to live in his east pavilion. It was rare for him to call on her there… his treatment of her was not really demeaning.’ (Tyler p. 311, 312)

Kōgō Incense Container   Yomogiu   Genji visits Suetsumuhana
Mid Edo Period 18th century   Unsigned   9 x 7 x 4 cms   POA
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Gold and silver takamakie, gold foil on nashiji ground. Prince Genji under an umbrella led by his retainers through the overgrown garden of Suetsumuhana.

The Presence and poetics of seasonal motifs in Japanese art have their beginnings perhaps in the sophisticated court culture of the Heian Period (794-1185). Autumn is associated with the changing colours of falling leaves, fading, nostalgic longing for the past, and absent or lost love. Part of the classic Tale of Genji (published 11th century) is devoted to competitions between the attributes of autumn and spring. In contemporary times, this is still relevant in the ‘maple viewing’ pilgrimages to Kyoto and other sites associated with kōyō, autumn colours.

ima wa tote                        now is the time
ware ni shigure no             you think to leave me
furiyukeba                          I am growing older
koto no ha sae zo              your promises too
utsuroinikeru                      leaves of turning colour

Poem from the Kokinwakashū Book 15 (Love): Poem 782

Kōgō Incense Container   Shinobugusa   Longing grasses (weeping fern, moss/hare’s foot fern)
Momoyama/Edo Period – 16/17th century   Unsigned   7 x 7 x 2.5 cms   POA
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Gold takamakie on a nashiji ground, interior nashiji. A small container used to store incense ingredients for the incense matching game, an integral part of the elegant pursuits of the aristocracy of the times. The use of the image of the moss/hare’s foot ferns, shinobugusa, is a homonym and visual metaphor for the verb ‘shinobu’ to long for or desire.

michinoku no                    do you not know it?
shinobu mojizukuri           you alone can set my heart
tare yue ne                        astir with feelings
midaremu to omou           confused as moss-fern patterns
ware naranaku ni               on cloth from Michinoku

Kokinwakashū Book 14 (Love): 724 by Minamoto Tōru (822-895)

Kōgō Incense Container   Tsuta no Hosomichi    The Ivy Covered Path
Momoyama/Edo Period 17th century   Unsigned   5.5 x 5.5 x 2 cms   POA
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The design of this box is a favourite illustration of one of the most popular and often depicted episodes from the ninth century Tales of Ise, one of the three most significant pieces of classical Japanese literature, episode 9, the ‘Utsu no Yama’ (Mt Utsu) section of ‘Azuma Kudari’, Journey to the East’. Courtier Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) deems it prudent to leave the capital, thought to be because of an imprudent love affair. Leaving the Eight Bridges and continuing their journey, he and his companions are confronted by a dark, narrow path overgrown with ivy and maples. “ As they contemplated it with dismal forebodings, a wandering ascetic (yamabushi) appeared.” (McCullough, H. Tales of Ise. p.75.) The traveller’s backpack of the design indicates the yamabushi. The monk was known to Narihira from the capital and was asked to take a message back to a lady there, presumably she of the scandalous affair.

Suruga naru                      Beside Mt Utsu
Utsu no yamabe no          In Suruga
Utsutsu ni mo                   I can see you
Yume ni mo hito ni           Neither waking
Awanu narikeri                 Nor, alas, even in my dreams

LKG_Antique-Lacquer-setsugekka650Kōgō Incense Container   Setsu Gekka   Snow Moon Flower
2006   Mukaitsura Nobuo (b. 1958)   Lacquer   8 x 8 x 6 cms   AUD 6200
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Autumn, winter and spring are embodied in the traditional Japanese design motif setsu gekka, snow, moon, flower: snow for winter; moon for autumn and flower for spring. In poetry, snow is often used as a metaphor for falling cherry blossoms.  On Mt. Gassan, the highest peak of Yamagata province, the cherry blossoms bloom very late. It is one of the rare nature spots were the three elements of nature’s beauty can be experienced together. These are also known as the three elements of Japan’s ascetics: snow is winter, darkness, death but with the promise of life to come; the moon is ever present, representing the truth of Buddhist law revealed in perfect form wherever viewed, and the cherry is unassailable vitality and invincibility. Inspired by mores of the Tang court (618-907), the three elements are paired with other poetic elements in this poem by Bai Juyi (772-846):

Zither, poetry, wind  :  these three friends have deserted us.
Snow, moon, flower  :  there are the times I miss you most.