Collecting and appreciating
Play is key to understanding the way yōkai are used in senjafuda. Beauty, a pleasing design rendered with fine workmanship, was of course important to senjafuda, just as it was in woodblock prints. But, again like woodblock prints, senjafuda designs were full of creative references to other cultural phenomena: poems, plays, fashions, books, historical events, customs, tourist attractions, legends, and many other artifacts of material or narrative culture.
Yōkai, for example, feature in senjafuda both because they were popular and attractive motifs in their own right and also because they allowed artists and collectors to make witty references to well-known stories, plays, works of art, or other phenomena that a viewer of the time might be expected to recognize. We might think of senjafuda as the early modern woodblock-printed equivalent of internet memes. And just like internet memes, senjafuda can be difficult to fully understand for someone removed from the context of their initial creation.
The slip above is an example of the multilayered referentiality and puzzle-like playfulness that senjafuda typically contain. It’s one of a series of slips presenting imagined textile patterns, three per 2-chō slip. Each of these patterns contains some sort of pun or complicated reference, some of which are explained by the name given to the pattern, others of which are explained (elliptically) by written commentary next to the design. Let’s start with the textile pattern on the top right, the most relevant to our yōkai-centered project. It shows a repeating pattern of a stick puppet of a fox in anthropomorphized form (perhaps the result of shape-shifting), with a smaller puppet of a horse on its hand. The title of this pattern, “Souvenir of Ōji,” tips us off that this is meant to represent a toy one might buy at the Ōji Inari Shrine, and indeed stick puppets of foxes are one type of souvenir sold there. But why the horse puppet? That’s explained in the caption beneath the textile: “Not quite putting a fox on a horse’s back, instead this is the start of the First Horse observances.” The problem is, this explanation itself is a puzzle. The first part is a reference to a proverbial expression, “setting a fox on a horse’s back,” which describes something precarious, unstable, or unreliable. This isn’t quite that, of course, because rather than a fox on a horse’s back we see a horse on a fox’s hand. The second part of the explanation refers to the “first horse” festival, the tradition of making a pilgrimage to an Inari shrine on the first Day of the Horse (as designated by the Chinese zodiac cycle) in the second month of the year. Here the horse is being represented literally. The whole image, then, is a multilayered reference to the Ōji Inari shrine, annual observances at all Inari shrines, the kinds of souvenirs one might buy there, the shape-shifting abilities of the foxes that serve Inari, and an old proverb. It’s a handsome textile design, too.
The design on the top left isn’t quite as complicated. The repeated motif is a silhouette of a quiver with arrows sticking out of it. The design is named “Daikyūgata,” which could be interpreted as meaning “longbow pattern” (with bow being metonymic for arrows and quiver). The caption on the left says it “came from a Rikyūgata,” or “Rikyū shape,” which was a kind of ornamental comb: crescent-shaped, with square ends. There’s a verbal pun with Rikyūgata twisted into Daikyūgata, matched with a visual pun, a quiver-and-arrows meant to resemble an ornamental comb. The caption even contains a little bit of wordplay in its own right: saying the pattern "came from a Rikyūgata" can be interpreted as meaning, not only that the shape of the quiver is reminiscent of a comb, but also, perhaps, that we should imagine the arrows actually sticking out of a comb.
The third design is even simpler. It shows cute little mice, and it’s called “Small Mouse Crest,” or nezumi komon. Where’s the joke? Nezumi komon is part of the title of a famous kabuki play from 1858: Nezumi komon haru no shingata, or The Small Mouse Crest: A New Pattern for Spring. The play is better known as Nezumi Kozō, or The Mouse Kid, the nickname of the outlaw hero it centers on, a kind of Robin Hood figure who aided the common folk. Viewers who knew the original title of the play would see in this pattern a literal rendering of the play's title, and therefore a reference to a swashbuckling rogue, as well as cute little mice.
There’s one more reference to unpack here. The entire series is quite possibly a reference to a well known picture book from 1784 called Tanagui awase, or The Hand-Towel Contest. It purports to chronicle a party at which various authors, illustrators, courtesans, and other luminaries of the Floating World each displayed hand towels whose original designs made just the kind of complicated, playful, and elegant references found in the textile designs we’ve been discussing. It’s unclear whether such a party actually took place; perhaps, like the textile designs, the hand-towel patterns only ever existed as illustrations. In any case, the book has been celebrated ever since as a classic example of Floating World chic. Our undated series of textile designs is acknowledging its inspiration, while adapting its ideas to new jokes and a new format: the senjafuda series.