Byways of Book Illustration: Two Japanese Romances

[The following essay, which contains Stevenson's comments on heroic culture, translation, book illustration, and Japanese art, first appeared in the 1883 Magazine of Art, which the Internet Archivehas made available from a copy in the University of Toronto Library. —  George P. Landow.]

The Samurai's Family

HERE are two illustrated Japanese romances, one, "Chiusliingura, or the Loyal League," translated into English by Mr. Dickins; the other, "Les Fidèles Rônins," rendered into French by M. Gausseron from the American edition of Messrs. Greey and Schiouichiro Saito. Each is an imaginative version of the story of the "Forty-seven Rônins," the gem of Mr. Mitford's collection. No one who has read it once will be likely to forget that drama of clan fidelity; but it may be as well, in the interest of those who have not, to recapitulate the leading features. In 1701 the chief of a clan, insulted by his superior, fell upon him with his sword in the precincts of the palace, and was condemned in consequence to self-destruction. By the same edict the lands and castle were forfeited to Government, and the clan dispersed. Now Kuranosuke, the Karo, or chief vassal of the clan, was a man of excellent conduct and courage — a man "worth millions." He gathered the clansmen together, as if to defend the castle; for that, it seems dimly to appear, would have been one way of doing honour to the manes of their chief. But this was not his genuine purpose. Explaining to the clan the vanity of any such defence, he laid before them a document binding the signatories to self-destruction, and to this sixty-three were prevailed upon to set their hands. Kuranosuke had now separated the wheat from the chaff; to the sixty-three he explained his true intention. The document was a blind; they were not to slay themselves, but to execute vengeance on their dead chieftain's enemy. To this desperate engagement forty-seven proved faithful. For something more than a year they watched the movements of their adversary, themselves hunted by spies, apart from their homes and families, feigning recklessness and degradation, and contemned by all for the apparent tameness with which they had accepted the ruin and dishonour of their clan. At length, when all suspicion had been lulled to sleep, they carried the mansion of their powerful enemy by night, put him to the sword in the midst of his guards, and quietly resigned themselves into the hands of justice. Then they could say, in the words of one of the romances now before us, "we deserted our wives, we abandoned our children, we left our aged folk uncared for, all to obtain this head." The authorities condemned them as criminals to the pain of self-destruction; but the people of Japan, both high and low, greeted their achievement with an outburst of applause; their memories are cherished to this day, their story is become a theme for the novelist, and the grave of Kuranosuke was honoured, only thirteen years ago, with the most distinguished mark of Imperial approval.

There is no form of conceit more common or more silly than to look down on barbarous codes of morals. Barbarous virtues, the chivalrous point of honour, the fidelity of the wild highlander or the two-sworded Japanese, are of a generous example. We may question the utility of what is done; the whole-hearted sincerity of the actors shuts our mouth. Nor can that idea be merely dishonourable for which men relinquish the comforts and consideration of society, the love of wife and child and parent, the light of the sun, and the protection of the laws. The seductions of life are strong in every age and station; we make idols of our affections, idols of our customary virtues; we are content to avoid the inconvenient wrong and to forego the inconvenient right with almost equal self-approval, until at last we make a home for our conscience among the negative virtues and the cowardly vices. A story like this of the Konins shakes about our ears the ramparts of our crockery Jericho. We cry out for a while on the insufficiency of the men's motive or the barbarity of their act. But our hearts soon begin to misgive us, and we recognise at last that for no purpose under heaven, however excellently just, could we collect forty-seven of our relatives or neighbours to be thus contemptuous of the terrors of death and of public opinion.

The Clan Mustering at the Castle

The historical incident, it will be seen, involves important moral issues. Nothing can be more instructive than to observe the play of native imagination about a theme of such a character; and in both of the volumes under review we find the same quality of moral vigour. It is from the moral rather than the romantic side — it is not as a feat of arms, not as a story of the sword, but of pathetic duty — that the action has been strengthened. It is as a case of competition of duties, and the continued triumph of the superior duty, the duty to the clan, that the tale has been throughout considered by the writers. Our duties here in England weaken as they get further from the hearth, until patriotism is but a fitful and tepid consideration, and honesty to the State a stretch of Quixotry. To these Japanese, on the other hand, the clan came far before the family; and both of our authors have fixed upon that doctrine with singular zest, and lavished a considerable wealth of fancy in varying the conditions in which it is displayed. To one character after another clan virtues are made to clash with filial duty, with married love, with the becoming prudences of social life; and one after another makes the nobler choice and goes forth to die. From the point of view of literary art this is an error of design. The main outline of the story already strikes the note with epic brevity and force. A true artist might have been content, in addition, to elaborate the figure of Kuranosuke — a loyal Lorenzaccio — lulling his enemy's suspicions by a life of heartless dissipation, divorcing his beloved wife, pointed at with fingers as he went reeling homeward from the tea-house, and conscious through all his loathed carousals of the sad purity of his heart and the tragic death that followed at his heels. But our two authors go on to show us, in the history of one Rônin after another, the same wrenching of the family affections, the same incredible nobility of mind in man and woman, Samurai and commoner. The mother of Communal kills herself that her son may pursue his duty with the lighter heart. The servants of Kuranosuke are with diificulty restrained from suicide. Honzo manoeuvres to be killed. Gihei is eager to sacrifice his infant son. The Karô of the villain dies as gladly for his master as the Karô of the beloved chieftain. Something in this iteration sets the teeth on edge. We grow weary of the triumph of clan duty as we grow weary of the triumph of the point of honour in Corneille's "Cid." There is even something in this continual return of the motive, this moral "air and variations," which faintly reminds us of the elaborate method of such a book as "Quatre-Vingt-Treize;" and the manner of Dumas had been more suitable in such a case than the manner of Hugo. Indeed, I have a thought of regret that this excellent fable never fell into the hands of the author of the "Mousquetaires." He could have given it the fire and action which it somewhat lacks; he would have put some devilry into the fighting; and his spirited, boyish, but really adequate presentation of character was excellently suited to so chivalrous a tale.

And yet these innumerable episodes are, in themselves, touching and pleasant. The good women, the simple homes illuminated by respectful love, the honest pieties which tempt the Rônins from the dark path of duty, are dwelt upon and made amiable in our eyes. The whole web of the men's lives is kind, courteous, and elegant. They make verses with their wives; they make verses as they sight the sunny peak of Fuji on their way to death. The flowers of the wild cherry are dear to them. When Kuranosuke allows one of the vassals to visit his family on the way to the catastrophe at Yeddo — an indulgence which he rigidly refuses to himself — "The perfume of the flowering plum-tree passes swiftly," says he. "Profit as best you may by these delightful moments." The vassal goes; after a day and a half he reaches the miserable house to which his family has been reduced by the ruin of the clan and his own adherence to duty; at the door his wife is washing clothes, their baby on her back; and even as she washes she prattles to the child about her absent husband and his desired return. Truly a moment to wring the heart of a man who was looking at these things for the last time. And yet when he discloses his presence it seems she scarcely interrupts her task. " Oh, honourable husband!" she says, "how glad I am to see you! Mother has been very anxious on your account. Honourable mother, where are you? my husband has come home." The simplicity, the absence of exaggeration, the thought of her mother-in-law leaping out among the first — how amiable a family picture!

The first of our illustrations represents another of these family scenes. The husband has been long ill, threatened with blindness; the wife, the servant, and two children have made a long and painful journey to attend upon his wants; they find him in a crazy house, full of tatters and patches; and there you behold the family united. The servant nurses the baby, the wife sits respectfully before her lord, the elder child is speaking: "Dear papa, do your eyes hurt you? I am so glad I came; now you will have somebody to rub your back! You know that's good for invalids." Perhaps the last idea is a reminiscence of his own; for both the children have been down with small-pox on the journey, and are but just recovered. Here again, and in all these scenes, there is the same absence of caresses, so strange to the Western mind, the same affection understood and passed over in silence or with but a word. This wife, for instance, has undertaken a long journey to comfort her husband; she knows besides the certain death that awaits him ere long; yet on her arrival she first inquires after his health, and then, having elaborately saluted him on her knees, "My honourable husband," she says, "it is now many, many months since I have seen you. All the while I have sighed after the time when I should see your face again." This distance, this subjection of all relations to etiquette, is still more drolly illustrated when Rikiya comes with a message and is received by Konami, his betrothed. The one blushes like the plum-tree, the other like the wild cherry; and the girl, forgetful of her mannerss, draws near to her beloved. "Rikiya drew back with an offended air" it seems. "Hold!" he cried, "this is scarcely civil. All the world knows that when a message is to be received the forms of politeness ought to be rigidly observed." Well, every country has its custom. There were plenty of true marriages conducted from the altar to the grave according to these nice conventions. Our Rônins were accustomed to see their wives kneel before them and stoop their foreheads to the mat; but their hearts bled when they had to part with them. It was pity and love for his young wife that kept back one of the number on the night of the attack, until he had actually to be sent after and led away. And there could be no prettier marriage relation than that of the old Samurai who was a poet and had a poetess to wife. His last letter, written on the eve of battle, is a gem. "Although our separation is the result of a resolution of so old a standing, we both of us feel cruelly its sadness. During the day, you write, your affairs prevent you from dwelling on the thought of our misfortune, but when the night comes you think of me and cannot sleep. My poor dear wife, I feel even as you feel. . . . You tell me that you were pleased with my verses on the defile of Osaka. I have a great admiration for those you sent me in your letters; and I hope, whenever you have a moment, you will write and send me more." And so he goes on advising her about her health, talking of old bereavements, and touching once on business; and ends by sending her a salted goose to make a soup of.

In the same letter, among other matters, there is a sketch of how the conspirators lived when they were all gathered together, waiting for their spring. The younger ones kept house, and served at table; they had sometimes leave of absence for the theatre. All were full of courage and even mirth; they had all nicknames; and the old poet, among others, was familiarly called "the doctor." Happy and simple ways: mirth, innocent pleasures, and innocent freedoms, prolonged up to the very margin of their voluntary grave.

Premier-Compagnon telling the news

Both in matter and in illustrations the French version is the more interesting; unfortunately, it is a translation of a translation, and is disfigured by the fatuous error of translating proper names. Messieurs Leblcu and Duval are not at all happily introduced to English readers under the style of Mr. The-Blue and Mr. Of-the-Vale; nor can a book be anything but arduous reading where the characters masquerade with sucli titles as Fortuné-Six, Récolte-Précoco, or Lac-Wisteria. Even the translator seems to have lost his head for the Chevalier Petit-Bosquet loses his own name at an early page and meets his death under the alias of Bosquet-Droit. Mr. Dickins's version of the other romance has a more outlandish smack, more of the trick, colour, and imagery of an alien language, society, and literature. His original, besides, is more fiery — fuller of fighting and brave words; but it is at the same time decidedly inferior; and "Chiushingura " is perhaps more curious than interesting. But it is interesting too: both are interesting — first for their intrinsic merit, and secondly as a piece of foreign travel among strange scenes, manners, and virtues. Both in the text and the illustrations a hundred little touches transport us into the houses, beside the busy shores, and on the mountain passes of Japan: — messengers shaken all day and night in flying litters; the hunter, caught by rain, begging a light for his matchlock from the traveller who passes with a paper lantern; the rowdy coolies at the river ferry; the young man, on his way to die, hopefully saluting the hill Fuji on the day of his majority; the Samurai at home, with the pipe, the kettle, the glasses, and the two swords laid by upon the bamboo sword-rack; and behind and around all these, the well-known features of the scenery of Japan: the square sails of vessels putting out to sea, the black pines, the mountain summits, the congregated roofs of towns.

Haie-Rouge giving the pennon of his lance

For both volumes all the illustrations have been designed and cut by natives, but in neither do they represent the highest order of Japanese work. The consummate generalisation, the singular clarity and elegance of design, are not here so conspicuous as in many of those enchanting picture-books that find their way to us from over seas, and are a joy for ever. The effect is sometimes a little scattered, the details too much insisted on. But the cuts in M. Quantin's book, four of which we reproduce, are still of striking excellence: vigorously drawn, and composed with that happy knack peculiar to the nation; in which every incident of the subject and the very title of the picture are put together like the elements of a pattern; and both in the use of the line and the opposition of the flat black and the full white, some of the charm of arabesque is added to the significance of rejiresentative art. One of our examples has been already described. The second, which represents the clan mustering at the castle. tells its own story with too much spirit to require a commentary. But the third and fourth are in a different case. One of the Rônins of Ako was a certain Haie-Rouge (I am now quoting the French book with its distracting nomenclature), a very drunken dog, a disgrace to his family, and a sore concern to his brother, the Chevalier Tourbiere, who was a severe, respectable Samurai. Haie-Rouge has been sen at his brother's house the day before, and has been refused admittance. Early in the morning a great clamour in the city wakens the Chevalier Tourbiere, who comes to his door, as in our third picture, and learns from his eager servant, Premier-Compagnon, that the deed has been done, that the clan of Ako has wiped out their chieftain's shame, and that they are now retreating from the ruined mansion of their enemy amid the acclamations of the mob. Instantly the question arises: Has poor Haie-Rouge wiped out the errors of his life by a share in this heroic deed, or has he been lying somewhere drunk while his companions trod the path of duty? Premier-Compagnon is despatched to spy out the fact; he must not ask; to ask, and to be answered in the negative, were an intolerable shame, Everywhere the mob is up, pushing for a glimpse of the heroes, and Premier-Compagnon has much ado, tramping in the snow, to get a sight of them. At length he gets into the front rank of the crowd, and beholds them, in three companies, leaving the mansion of the Prince of Sendai where they have been entertained. The first company passes; no Haie-Rouge. The second company passes; it is led by Kuranosuke, and almost all the men are wounded, some even carried in litters; and still no Haie-Rouge. Poor Premier-Compagnon, who is a loyal servant, and holds his master's glory for his own, begins to grow sick at heart; when lo! here comes the third company, and, marching at the head, acknowledged leader, Haie-Rouge in his battle-armour. The servant falls on his knees in the snow ; the transformed drunkard pauses, speaks to him, sends messages to his family, and gives the pennon of his lance by way of relic. And then, as his companions are already some distance before him, he overtakes them by running, and disappears for ever from men's eyesight. "Look at him! look at him!" cries the servant to his neighbours in the crowd. "Honourable gentlemen, that is the Chevalier Haie-Rouge, the brother of my honourable master. He only belongs by adoption to the clan of Ako, and behold him today among the avengers! "And so he wanders on, until his hero is long out of sight, and the bystanders tell him he has gone "mad with joy;" thence he speeds home, where the drunkard's hat and half-emptied saki-bottle are religiously laid aside in honour of his memory. Happy drunkard, who has thus realised the last and dearest of human illusions, and at one blow gloriously wiped out the stains and dishonours of a life! The two pictures seem to me both excellent: Premier-Compagnon quite a creation in a rough way, and his grinning excitement in the first scene admirably distinguished from his half- hysterical glee in the second. I need not call the attention of the reader to the composition of the fourth plate, it speaks for itself sufficiently; but I hope he will not fail to observe the droll white dog in number three.

Kuranoske ordering Kudaiu to Death

From Mr. Dickius's translation we reproduce, by the publishers' permission, no complete picture, but two groups, the fifth and sixth of our illustrations. They are much worse designed and executed than those we have already studied, but they have a certain interest of their own. In the fifth, Kuranosuke, after having long deceived a treacherous clansman, Kudaiu, has at last broken forth on him with blows and curses. "This very night," he has said, "the very eve of our lord's death - day — ah! what evil things have I been forced to say about him with my lips; but at least in my heart I heaped reverence upon reverence for his memory — this very night was it thou chosest to offer me flesh. I said nor yea nor nay, as I took it; but, oh! with what shame, with what anguish did I, whose family for three genera- tions have served the house of Hanguwan, find myself forced to let food pass my lips on the eve of my lord's death-day! I was beside myself with rage and grief, every limb in my body trembled, and my forty-four bones quaked as though they would shiver in pieces." And then, having unpacked his heart with words, he orders the traitor out to die. The cut does not agree in details with the text; it has little merit, and that little seems to have evaporated from our reproduction ; but even there an effort after the heroic may be observed in Kurnnnsuke's attitude as he stands, lean- ing on his sword, above the rest. In our sixth picture the final onslaught is shown with a certain grim intensity which can scarcely be paralleled in either of the volumes under study. Justice is rarely done either to passion or action. The assault, in the French book, is a piece of jumbled folly, and the conflict with the coolies almost undistinguishable. As for the midnight murder, in the English book, it is melodramatic if you please, but sadly laughable.


The Vengeance

That violent action should be thus inefficiently treated is, of course, exceptional in the vigorous and fantastic art of Japan; but that emotion, so much dwelt upon by the writer, should be thus slurred by the draughtsman, seems not only a characteristic, but probably a commendable feature. The eye of the Japanese is as quick to single out, as his hand is dexterous to reproduce, the truly pictorial features of a landscape or an incident. But with these features he appears to rest content. The mass of incidental information which goes to the making of a modern European landscape — the difference of planes, the intricacy of outline, the patient effort after a combination of local and general colour — contrasts strikingly indeed with the few, learned touches by which a Japanese will represent a mountain or a city. The Oriental addresses himself singly to the eye, seeking at the same time the maximum of effect and the minimum of detail. It may be an open question whether we should attribute the purely pictorial and unemotional character of the bulk of these illustrations to the same artistic singleness of purpose or to a mere defect of skill. Whatever is the cause, I should say the lesson to be learnt is the same, and it is one which the art of Japan is particularly fitted to enforce. Pictorial art in the west is still following' false gods, literary gods; it strains after passion, which is beyond its purpose and beyond its capacity to communicate; it too often addresses itself to other faculties besides the eye, or, if to the eye, then without simplicity of means; and, in common with all our arts, it labours under the desire of the artist to represent, before all things, his own ability and knowledge.


Chiushingura, or the Loyal League. Translated by Frederick V. Dickins. (London: W. H. Allen and Co.) 1881.

Les Fideles Rônins. Traduit par M. J. Gausseron. (Paris; A. Quantin.) 1882.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. "Byways of Book Illustration: Two Japanese Romances." Magazine of Art. 6 (1883): 8-15. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of Toronto Library. Web. 5 September 2013.

Last modified 5 September 2013