Scenes in the Entertainment District

Gold leaf screen in 6 panels with figures in a circle outside of a structure.The Museum recently acquired a pair of magnificent Japanese six-panel folding screens that date to the seventeenth century. For centuries in premodern Japan, castles, palaces, temples, and the homes of the wealthy featured elegant roof beams that eliminated the need for load-bearing walls. Since their introduction to Japan from China in the eighth century, vividly painted screens have been used to demarcate space in these open interiors.

The monumental six-panel format, used for screens that formed pairs or larger sets, provided painters with endless options for creating sprawling, episodic images. In this pair of screens, titled Scenes in the Entertainment District, a large complex unfolds over the length of twelve painted panels.

The Edo period was an era of relative peace and economic growth. To control public behavior, the government built walled districts in major urban areas for the establishment of licensed brothels, theaters, and teahouses. These quarters, which became popular among all levels of society, were sites for merriment, debauchery, and the flaunting of wealth. Although the aristocracy and the military rulers continued to be important patrons of the arts, the entertainment district, with its often sophisticated theatrics and fashionable denizens, inspired the extremely popular genre of ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints. Ukiyo-e means “pictures of the floating world,” a phrase that reflects a romanticized notion of the district as well as its inhabitants and visitors.

Gold leaf screen in 6 panels with figures in a circle outside of a structure.The unknown but highly skilled painter or group of painters of these screens employed a long-used pictorial device called fukinuki yatai, the “blown-off roof,” in which buildings are positioned at a steep angle and without fenestration. The technique allows viewers to see complex scenes set inside buildings. The painter also added gold leaf to the screen paintings, embellishing the building’s landscaped grounds as well as banks of clouds along the top and bottom borders. The gold would have vibrantly glittered in the candlelit interiors in which this pair of screens and others like it would have been placed.

On the far right, the scene opens outside of the main brothel compound, where a group of fashionable women stroll in the foreground while palanquin carriers lazily wait for their clients to emerge. In the background, courtesans dressed in elegant kimonos sit in a screened-off room. On display for potential clients, they advertise the entertainments promised in the main buildings. The gambit works, as they are watched by several men, including two who hold fans up to their faces, disguising their identities. As the viewer’s eye moves to the left, the main compound comes into view with two cooks in the background. One is filleting a fish with chopsticks and a knife and the other tends to a pot of rice.

Detail of the second screen of two figures in inside the structure, one cutting a fish, one stirring a bowl.Inside the two-story building that spans the two screens are multiple groups of men and women. Some play music, others enjoy drinking games, cards, or a form of chess called Go; still others smoke tobacco while servants prepare drinks and snacks. Many of the clients have swords tucked in their belts, and several monks partake in the entertainments. Across the scene, the attention to painterly detail is tremendous: textiles are brightly colored and carefully patterned, and lacquer utensils are rendered with meticulous specificity.

The pictorial tableau ends with a scene of about thirty figures dancing in a courtyard outside the brothel. They dance in a circle, bodies swaying and arms stretched out in expressions of joy. Their singing, music, and movements are soon quieted by the scene in the leftmost panel of the left screen. Here, a solitary fisherman sits on a rocky outcrop, leaning toward his fishing rod. The sense of peace exuded by a single figure gazing into the water acts as a painted coda, allowing a thoughtful ending to a scene of lively merriment.

Zoe S. Kwok
Nancy and Peter Lee Associate Curator of Asian Art