Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design
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This wonderful, fascinating, and gorgeous book is one of the most useful volumes I have ever come across. After years of wondering what visual images signify on Japanese artifacts like a wedding kimono, this remarkable book enables us to understand what they mean. If you want to know what an adulteress looks like, you will find out in this book. An adulteress wears one pot on her head for every adultery. The puzzling world of the netsuke, in which men often sport frogs on their heads, is explained here. The index is entirely useful, so that anything can be found quickly. I looked up «tanuki» (like our raccoon) and «hair», and found a wealth of information immediately. This book is so beautiful it is enough simply to look at it, but it also gives the reader access into deep understanding of Japanese culture. You will amass an enormous understanding without even being aware of it. Merrily Baird has gone ardously and exhaustively afield, and the result is a book that is astonishingly readable, often funny, and completely sound. I intend to give this book to friends interested in art and in Japan. I hope everyone will take a look at it. Believe me, you won't stop looking very easily.
Japanese and Chinese art have been a fascination for me for many years. However, I am continually frustrated by conflicting and confusing information about the symbolic meanings of these two artistic traditions, and an inconsistent use of terminology. «Symbols of Japan» - amazingly (and concisely) gives me the answers to these longstanding problems. As another reviewer said, this is an eye-catching book, well designed and with some extraordinary pieces of art illustrated. But for me, the special significance of «Symbols of Japan» is its text. The writing has great clarity and discipline. I found it is so very elegant and fascinating that I kept wishing I could read even more on the topics covered.
«Symbols of Japan», is a one-volume encyclopedia and has between one and ten paragraphs for each of the several hundred subjects, making it easy to maneuver. Each entry specifically addresses how the topic is treated in art, and also - and here is where this book is so unique-first provides a considerable amount of cultural background in a truly interesting manner. Some entries are predictable, like dragons and cherry blossoms. But others are off the beaten track or often examined in a light I had not even considered.
What kinds of subjects did I personally like best? Such topics as how the Japanese think of and depict weather, the degree to which demons are malicious and immoral, why ghosts of the deceased are usually female, and the role oxen play in fighting epidemics. Also how the Japanese typically paint tigers, why ropes and knots are so important in everyday life and art, why Japanese art shows clothing meant to make Taoist wizards invisible, and what it means if you see people in clothing patterned with swastikas.
I do not think that «Symbols of Japan» makes any pretensions that it is a history of Japanese art, and it does not examine any specific art media in depth. Still, readers interested in Japanese art (and others with specialized interests such as samurai history, tattoos, dolls, astronomy, mythology, gardening, and the theater) will surely want to make «Symbols of Japan» a foundation of their libraries and a first choice for learning more about Japanese culture. Moreover, it is truly beautiful to look at.