Past Times and Arts
Many samurai visit geisha houses, enjoying evenings of music, dance, and free conversation. As an added benefit, since geisha are technically hinin, or “non-people,” a samurai can freely express his emotions to them without losing face. Many samurai find that after pouring out their frustrations to a sympathetic geisha they are refreshed and ready to serve their lords with renewed determination. Geisha often take professional pride in their ability to be sympathetic toward their clients.
A widely studied both for its intrinsic beauty and because an elegant hand at writing is useful for impressing daimyo, matchmakers, and other persons of importance. Many duelists believe calligraphy sharpens the spirit and aids their swordsmanship. Among the more cultured clans of the Empire, poetry is widely studied even by those who do not consider themselves particularly artistic; the Crane, Dragon, and Phoenix Clans in particular believe that any decently educated samurai ought to be capable of composing a waka
or haiku to suit the occasion.
The art of arranging cut flowers, and emphasizes using them to create something both aesthetically pleasing and spiritually harmonious. An ikebana arrangement is similar to a haiku (see Poetry below) in the sense that both use limited means to evoke a larger reality. The Crane Clan credits Lady Doji with the invention of ikebana, and the art is widely loved and practiced throughout that clan.
The classical Rokugani garden tries to recreate the look of a natural landscape on a small scale, and usually includes a water feature in the form of a running stream and a pond. Samurai and wealthy merchants who want a classical garden but could not afford to put in an artifi cial stream often turned to using pebbles to signify the path of a stream’s bed. This new style of gardening—called, appropriately enough, rock gardening—spread rapidly through the
The Unicorn created a particular type of painting, the narrative scroll, soon after their return to the Empire. In their wanderings through gaijin lands it had been common for Unicorn samurai to record a journey in a scroll: such a scroll would consist of a running series of sketches and notes on things done and seen. When artists of the Unicorn began mastering the arts of calligraphy and traditional painting they realized all of these things could be combined to create a continuous narrative. Narrative scrolls quickly became popular throughout the Empire, and in modern times artists from other clans produce them as well.
One of the most highly regarded arts, and very few samurai homes or palaces lack some kind of decorative painting. The preferred subjects are serene natural landscapes or images of wild animals (birds taking flight are an especially popular topic), but individual families and clans may seek out other topics—battle scenes are popular with the more warlike clans, and many samurai also seek out pictures depicting the deeds of great ancestors or their clan’s founding Kami. Regardless of topic, it is generally agreed that no samurai’s home is complete without a wall scroll or a painted screen.
- Storytelling is extremely popular in Rokugan, and there are two basic kinds of performers, storytellers and chanters. Chanters differ from storytellers by their highly distinctive and stylized manner of recitation, accompanied by music. The biwa is the traditional instrument of a chanter, though chanters associated with puppet theater usually use a samisen instead.
- There are a number of courtly dance styles, such as the bugaku in which masked dancers perform fictional characters with stylized steps and movements. Overall, however, dance is more often considered a medium of light entertainment rather than great art. Dance gains most
of its respect for its importance in theater, since both noh and kabuki use dance to help convey the drama of the play.
- Noh is the oldest and most respected form of theater: it is essentially a long poem presented by a handful of actors accompanied by music, a theater of symbolism with heavy emphasis on the actors’ ability to evoke mystery and depth by the use of stylized motions. The plots are minimal and usually deal with supernatural themes or events long in the past. They also tend to be tragic to the point of depressing, and short comedic plays known as kyogen are often performed in between noh plays for the audience’s emotional relief.
- Kabuki is a younger art form and considered by some to be lowbrow, having evolved out of the kyogen plays. It is still supported by the nobility, however, and many respected writers have created kabuki plays. Kabuki features gorgeous, elaborate costuming, dramatic action, and a mixture of traditional stories and up-to-date plots based on current events. Kabuki plays are far less scripted than noh plays, leaving wide room for actors to improvise and interpret their roles.
- Puppet Theater (bunraku) evolved from the chanter storytelling tradition, and the actual text of the play is declaimed by a chanter while the puppets carry out the action. The flexibility and small size of puppets allow them to act out acrobatics impossible for a human actor, and scripts for them frequently take advantage of that fact. Dramatic battles and supernatural beings are the stock in trade of puppet theater. The chanting style here is the same as that of the chanter storyteller, and talented chanters frequently shift between independent storytelling and performing as part of a theater troupe.
Poetry (waka) is the most celebrated of the literary arts. Many of the most famous books of literature in Rokugan’s history are poetry collections, and no samurai can be ignorant of them
and still be considered educated.
- Poetry Party Guests compete to create a poem on the subject provided by the host, or to complete a poem started by another guest. Many poetry parties are in fact thin excuses to drink sake and have a good time, and this is so widely accepted that poetry matches will sometimes spontaneously break out among groups of drunken samurai. Even Crab samurai can be susceptible to this, and while the resulting poetry is generally of very poor quality, no one can doubt its heartfelt nature.
- Haiku Composed of 17 syllables divided into three lines of five, seven, and five syllables respectively—a structure often expressed shorthand as “5-7-5.” The poem is expected to use highly evocative allusions or comparisons, often involving nature or the seasons. Often, though not always, the third line offers a twist or ironic contrast to the two previous lines, changing their meaning and adding further depth to the poem as a whole.
- Tanka A more antique and complex style of poem has two additional lines each of seven syllables, for a total structure of 5-7-5-7-7. Tanka are not as popular in the modern Empire, since they require more time to compose and appreciate, and thus are not as well-suited to courtly games. However, books of poetry often make use of the tanka form to express more complex thoughts or to tell stories.
- Unicorn Travel Poetry Follows a very different format than traditional Rokugani forms. It usually involves five lines without any consideration for the number of syllables, rhythm, or meter, and a separate sixth line that sums up the poem. The first two lines of the poem will alliterate, and the third line will alliterate within itself. This pattern is repeated with the fourth and fifth lines alliterating and the sixth line alliterating within itself.
A separate sub-style of Unicorn poetry is the so-called death poem, in which the last line does not alliterate—a jarring shift designed to capture the abrupt end of death.
The Empire does see the creation of some pure fiction, mostly as short stories or novelettes, but as a general rule the Rokugani prefer to have prose that presents itself as being about real happenings. Even fictional works often follow the structure of non-fiction books.
- War Tales Are based on the writer’s history. Few of them can match the power and mastery of material shown by the Ikoma storytellers. Ikoma war tales are popular with every level of society, so much so that peasant story chanters will pay to have them read out loud so they can memorize them.
- Pillow-Books Journals containing incidents from the writer’s life, along with commentary and observations—are treasured for being witty and up-todate. No fashion or trend will be accepted by the lower ranks of samurai until it gets mentioned in the published pillow book of a famous courtier or artisan. Pillow books are also the best sources of gossip and scandal; though it is dishonorable to mention such things directly, a skillful writer can relate absolutely sordid stories through indirect language and pseudonyms. It is quite common for pillow books to use symbols or nicknames for the people they are written about, leaving the readers to speculate on who “Cho” or “D-chan” really is.
- Travelogues Usually the diaries of courtiers or magistrates who have traveled the Empire as part of their duties, of artisans who have gone on an artist’s journey, or of samurai who have engaged in a musha shugyo (warrior’s pilgrimage). Depending on the temperament of the writer, these works can contain descriptions of important historical or religious sites, accounts of especially good or bad meals, sketches of other travelers, stories drawn from local folklore, studies of flowers and trees, descriptions of duels, or poems inspired by things seen or experienced.
Sculpture in Rokugan is a relatively minor art. It is not looked down upon, to be sure, but the demand for it is quite limited. Temples, shrines, palaces, and tombs are often highly decorated with statues of fortunes and guardian spirits, but in their private homes samurai prefer to use unshaped rocks in their gardens, and Rokugani architecture makes their houses more congenial to paintings than sculptures.
- Netsuke Everyday useful things, made by heimin craftsmen and not samurai artisans—no samurai would consider them art, but nevertheless some of them show great talent and care in their making. The finest netsuke are eagerly sought after as gifts. More than one peasant family has risen to prosperity on the strength of its netsuke production, and a samurai who sponsors a skilled netsuke carver can gain considerable success for himself as well.
The art of the tattoo is most strongly associated with the Dragon Clan—with good reason, for it is rare to find a Dragon samurai who does not have at least one. Of course, very few of them have the mystic properties associated with the famed Togashi tattoos, but neither are they merely decorative.
The tea ceremony can be considered as the most intimate of the performing arts: it is performed by one person in the small confines of the tea house for a handful of other people, the only props being the tea set itself. It is an art of motion and clarity, its only goal to bring the participants together in harmony with the eternal now. The Crane credit Lady Doji herself with the creation of the tea ceremony, and no other clan can quite match their obsession with creating the perfect ceremony.