by Stephen O’Connor
I have always looked forward to welcoming the sparrows to my garden. It is the way they dash off pell-mell into the trees, their small wings beating in a blur of browns and then reappear seconds later, chattering like a boisterous herd that reminds me of Hokusai’s suzume odori or sparrow dance. Here is his sketch of a man in the traditional Japanese festival dance:
I love the seemingly magical instants of movement from the 15 different positions of the man as he tilts, pirouettes and slides throughout an avalanche of a performance. The sketch is one of 15 volumes drawn by Hokusai featuring over 4000 block printed images highlighting landscapes and everyday life in Edo period Japan, completed over a term spanning seven years. The series was known as Hokusai Manga which could be interpreted as ‘drawing as it comes spontaneously’ and was a precursor to him wanting to outline the principles of his style of drawing. This sketch is an excellent example of his art. The composition of the dancing sparrow man invokes a keen eye of observation and attention to detail by Hokusai. He has carefully absorbed the event and has shared it with the viewer in his own unique way. His lines in the drawing are made with elegant curves that imbue the figure with a sense of greater spontaneity and also invoke a feeling of fluidity.
Even though the figures are clumped together on the paper, every line drawn appears different which gives the sketch an added sense of individual character and also quirky humor. I like the way this lively vignette displays a burlesque sense of the comic, drawn from behind, which magnifies the inventive visual honesty of the man masquerading as a sparrow. Of course, this humorous rendering and overall bawdiness of the dance is in complete contrast to the very controlled and staid state orthodoxy of society in Japan at this time. This quirkiness was also reflected in Hokusai’s personal life whereby he was the archetype eccentric Japanese painter; an outsider and loner, moving house 93 times and changing his noms d’ artiste a number of times, finally dying with the name translated as “Old Man Mad About Painting.”
Another creative genius, and my favorite writer that immediately sprung to mind upon my musings of suzume odori, was Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation writer of the 1950s who also used his art to find his place as an outsider. He had new ways of writing about the world that challenged the contemporary literature of the time. In the very same vein as Hokusai with his art, Kerouac was also at his best when writing about the world around him and how people interacted in it. His method of writing he termed spontaneous prose which encouraged writing without revisions and a focus not on form or traditional writing conventions, but on writing freely, without restraint. His writing of the personal encounters he had with people is without reflection or explanation which adds to the effortless and free flowing rush of the prose. As his writing conventions were so new, he looked to explain his writing style in “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” His manifesto is a list of thirty rules that he followed and is the standard of how his work is interpreted. In his technique, Kerouac is very clear in retaining a very individualistic voice;
coming in from under,
crazier the better.
Overall, in “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” his message is to embrace everything and to describe the state of it as it is being viewed, which is very similar to the social observations and incisive detailing that Hokusai undertook.
There are clear comparisons between how both Kerouac and Hokusai approach the technique of their work. When writing, Kerouac focuses on the world around him and with observant eyes starts with a “jewel center” and then spirals out with spontaneous creations. However, it is not disorganized nor sloppy but in a similar sense with Hokusai, very systematic in a unique way that allowed him to develop his distinct voice. During their time, both Hokusai and Kerouac were criticized at length for their unique creativeness. Kerouac being attacked for only “typing” rather than writing and Hokusai painting “trifles” instead of art. However, as time has shown, both looked to attain and maintain their individual voices within their own artistic spheres with highly sophisticated creative art that challenged the contemporary thinking at the time.
Just as I’m about to return inside from the garden, the trees above me begin to rustle and the sparrows renew their wheeling, frantic chase above my head like a bull to the matador. On first look they seem obscurely ordinary, dressed in their dowdy feathers, but it is their rogue unfettered character and also their song that ripples out like a turning waterwheel that makes me think of the suzume odori and the beauty and spontaneity in the everyday.
Stephen O’Connor is a short story and nonfiction writer currently living in New Zealand. His short fiction appears in Takahe, Flash Frontier, Ad Hoc, and Headland among other places. Currently he teaches writing at university and spent a good deal of his time in Japan, living in a city well known for its eel delicacies.