“Yūgen” in the nature art of Touhou

(Note: All of the images are resized to fit in the post. Click for full!)

For the new year, I’ve decided that I want to use this blog to write about whatever I want to, rather than confining my writing to discussion of music. Perhaps later I will split off my non-musical writings into another blog, but for now this will do.

I wanted to get a new background image for my phone the other day, so I went fishing for pretty pictures on my computer. I didn’t find anything particularly compelling at first, but while I was searching through images I recalled a bunch of Touhou art I had enjoyed; beautiful images of nature with the series’ ubiquitous girls hanging around somewhere in the frame. I remember being impressed upon first seeing them at how so many artists had gone for the same approach, placing the focus on the landscapes rather than the women. This was certainly not something I had seen often in contemporary Japanese pop art. Perhaps it became a fad, like so many other things Touhou, to show off your painterly skills in the portrayal of the natural world while affiliating it with the girls of the series. As is the case with the Touhou music scene, it seems like many aspiring artists use the series as a launchpad for their works, showing off their skills in a way that others can immediately relate to because of the familiarity of the songs and the characters.

In any case, I was dismayed to find that the images I was looking for were no longer accessible in the place where I had found them. However, I found some new ones.

This picture, and the other two I will discuss here, reminds me of things I’ve read about the relationship of figure and background in old Eastern art, in which human figures are not central to the image. This perspective choice causes the background to come into focus and be realized more fully. The two ladies seem to be here mostly to provide scale to the image, and to bear witness to the spectacle before them. Their faces are obscured, since the real character is the scene.

And what a scene it is! The cloud shadow, the lush grasses in the foreground, and the gentle slope of the field all lend an immediate sense of depth and reality to the picture, and the depth increases as the eye rises, venturing deep into misty, clouded hills, and further still into the majestic sky, which the blonde girl seems to be taking in along with the viewer. The way the girls are holding onto their hats, one can imagine the wind creating rippling waves of grass all the way to the forest’s edge.

In the everyday human world of streets, cars, and boxes inside boxes in which we live, we are seldom confronted with such a scene. It becomes increasingly easy to forget that places like this even exist in the world outside of art and fiction, and in a way, this picture seems fantastical to me. Perhaps it is the lack of human refuse or alteration of the landscape; there is no trash and there are no warning signs or fences. Nature in this scene exists only for its own purposes, and our two witnesses are small figures dwarfed by its grandeur and swept by its winds, rather than being controllers who have come to bend the environment to their own wills and twist the natural world into a form more conducive to human progress. The girls are mute, silent before the vast music of the world, and yet they seem to belong in the scene, as natural a part of it as the clouds above.

This picture, while perhaps less visually impressive than the first, is similarly inspiring to me. In fact, I think it’s an even better example of the Japanese concept of yūgen, which is roughly defined as “a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe.”

“To watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.”

If all these things are yūgen, certainly this image is as well. Our figures are more magical this time themselves, an occidental witch and an oriental shrine maiden, and they seem to be drifting in no hurry across this secluded landscape of serene green. Indeed, they seem to be wandering with no thought of return, and no immediate goal in mind. Their path appears to lead them into the daytime twilight of the marshy woods, which is obscured from our view and is purely mysterious.

I think the most beautiful thing about this image is the murky reflection of the lake, punctuated by the sharp, clean lines of the reeds growing out from it. The reflection brings a strong sense of the magic of illusion to the scene, a reminder that the visual world it reflects is made of light, and is purely illusory as well. One can easily see in the mind’s eye the two figures moving across the lake’s surface, leaving no reflection behind as they continue on their journey, returning the small marshy shore to its secluded mystery.

Interestingly, this last image is not by the same artist as the previous one, despite the similarities in style, tone and location. It’s possible that he was inspired by the other artist’s work, but in any case it seems as if he has continued the journey of our shrine maiden and witch, placing them deep in the woods.

Of all these pictures, the two figures seem most at home in their environment here. They appear almost to be fairies playing in the afternoon light filtering through the forest canopy, seeming as though they would immediately vanish if a normal human stumbled upon them. The gorgeous fog-like web of illuminated leaves gives an ethereal aura to the scene, and the forest floor itself looks as if it were sprinkled with fairy dust. Surely they are performing some secretive rite around a fairy ring, or hunting for magical herbs and mushrooms. Perhaps the best thing about this image is that it even lends mystery to what lies beyond the forest, with the bright white glow at the end of the path suggesting further wanderings. Maybe it’s that beautiful windswept field, out on the other side of the woods.

Things always seem most magical when they are at their most obscure. I think the secret of yūgen lies in embracing that mystery in a work of art or in an experience, rather than fighting to clear away the obscurity and grasping for certainty. To be content and satisfied with the present moment means to be able to accept mystery in the world, to not know everything that is going to happen before it happens. The beauty in these images could never be captured or appreciated by someone who is in a hurry to get somewhere, whose mind is focused on important or serious things, or who sees everything in the natural world as means to a human end. In these images, the end is the world itself.

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6 Responses to “Yūgen” in the nature art of Touhou

  1. James says:

    Mm, I really enjoyed that post. What you said about figure and ground really resonated with me -it’s nice to see art that doesn’t treat humans as the center of the universe but doesn’t eschew them altogether; instead we get to linger, blinking in and out on the periphery. Now that I think about it, so much European art [besides landscape painting, which often featured human settlements at least in the distance], particularly the kind you get exposed to in a history or basic arts class, is entirely focused on humans and their creations. Particularly the art of a few centuries ago, with conventions about the subject having a generally triangular form and taking up most of the scene. Some artists broke away from that, but we [westerners] tended to violate a lot of other artistic conventions at the same time. These pictures seem to say: “The world doesn’t revolve around you, and that’s okay,” without getting rid of meaning altogether.
    Here’s a song that happened to be on when I read this, that’s pretty conducive to the mood in the pictures: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3loF8NmCtLE
    {Logistical note: please don’t split your blog into different fragments.}

  2. Lance says:

    I think it’s definitely true that Western art has had a very heavy focus on figure, specifically humans and their artifacts as you said, and the landscape painting often does have a rather “square” feeling to it, where we must be reminded that the scene is important because man and his linear designs are in it. Blinking in and out of the periphery really is what we do, in a cosmic sense, and there really is nothing wrong with that. 🙂

    I was reading some Watts thing recently where he said, “with each new pair of eyes, the universe beholds itself anew.” Human eyes have the questionable tendency to spend the majority of their time beholding themselves.

    It is serendipitous that you listened to that song, because I listened to that album yesterday, possibly while I was writing this. It’s quite fitting.

    • James says:

      Hmm. I don’t think there’s any more difference between looking out at the universe directly and looking inward at something that reflects the universe -we are simply a product of the universe after all – than between looking directly at the sky and looking through a telescope, which uses mirrors to reflect the universe in a much more literal sense. Sort of like in ji ji muge [roughly translated ‘the difference between this particular and that particular is nothing’]: all things about humans depend directly upon all things in the universe.
      To see what I mean more plainly, note the fact that you got experienced this rich aesthetic appreciation when you were looking not directly at fields and reflecting pools and forests, but at an image on a screen that contained a picture some other human made.
      Don’t get me wrong though, when people get attached to memories of reflections of images of impressions of cognitions, that can sometimes be less than conducive for their own joy, just like when you surround yourself completely with mirrors it’s just dark inside.

      • Lance says:

        I think the key word you used there at the end is “attached,” which is basically the point I was trying to make with the “beholding themselves” comment.

        Something that has perplexed me for a while is the distinction between “being in the Tao” and deviating from it… It has been said that there is no way to deviate from the Tao, no way to truly remove oneself from the stream of the universe, and yet there are dialogues such as this:

        “What is the Tao?”
        “Your ordinary mind is the Tao.”
        “How do I come into accordance with it?”
        “If you try to accord, you deviate.”

        This could be taken to mean that all attachments, and all seemingly wayward states of mind and feeling are just as much part of the whole as the most enlightened mind-states. No matter how lost one becomes in the mirror-halls of illusion, one is never truly separate and alone.

        However, this comment was from a master to another monk, and I think it’s at a much further level than most people are at… He was telling his student to stop trying so hard and let go of his cleaving to the concept of the Tao. The average person would also be advised to stop clinging, but the average person is probably trying overly hard towards goals other than being in smooth accordance with the flow of the universe.

        Instead of beholding themselves, I probably should have said “clinging to themselves,” since this is what we do that I feel is not conducive to the world being an overall nicer place to live in. It’s a very good point that these works of human art brought out my appreciation… They seem to send a message that it isn’t necessary to cling, since the whole world is here, springing to life at every moment.

        As you put it, “the world doesn’t revolve around you, and that’s okay.” Perhaps this means that the meaning is there outside of us to see, and it is not required of us to create our own meanings and desperately cling to them for fear of living in a hollow and threatening other-world if we let go.

        Incidentally, this is why I find existentialism to be a rather bleak philosophy.

  3. James says:

    It’s interesting how what you tell someone to get them to see something doesn’t necessarily accord with what they come to see or even what you hope they’ll see. This tends to be used a lot at least in Buddhism, but I think the same principle’s there in the little dialogue you posted. The realization being aimed at, the way I see it, is that you can’t do a damned thing about whether you accord with the Tao or not. So if fretting about whether you accord to it or not brings you more suffering than security, leave that baggage unattended somewhere. On the other hand, if you feel the need to arrange objects along diagonals or in circles in sets of only even numbers [have you seen Steven King’s ?], such is also the way of at least one corner of the universe. While we are operating aesthetically we can appreciate the beauty self-imposed suffering can bring to the world, but we may fight such suffering in our own lives without blemishing that.

    • James says:

      Blarg, should’ve been Steven King’s “N.” Either I’ve forgotten how to use html tags or this place parses them funny. Probably the former.

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