by Phyllis Brotherton
Frog and Mouse by Getsujū
Hanging scroll, ink on paper, late 18th – early 19th century
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Gift of the Clark Center for Japanese Art & Culture,
Clark Center Catalog Entry: The small white mouse contrasts starkly with the large frog, while a moral relating the two fills the empty background. The signature reads, “Dairyūsai Getsujū while drinking,” suggesting the painting may have been created during a drinking party. Little else is known about the artist.
The ancient Japanese zuihitsu form includes random jottings consisting of personal, loosely connected and fragmented ideas, many times addressing the author’s surroundings. The name derives from two “Kanji” meanings: “to follow” and “brush.”[i]
“The literal translation of zuihitsu, running brush or following the impulses of the brush, suggests a sense of spontaneity.”[ii]
In the dark, I capture a 33-second video of our backyard, frogs croaking loudly, and send it to friends who live up the hill. I’m tipsy from our double-date, where my wife and I down two drinks each with dinner, followed by Duck Farts on the patio. We explain to a curious group close by the origin of Duck Farts (Red Dog Saloon, Juneau), invoking fond memories of trips to Alaska.
“For it may be doubted, firstly, whether antitheses exist at all; and secondly, whether the popular valuations and antitheses of value […] are not perhaps merely superficial estimates, merely provisional perspectives, besides being probably made from some corner, perhaps from below – ‘frog perspectives,’ as it were, to borrow an expression current among painters.”[iii]
Re: “Frog & Mouse” painting by Getsujū
Dear Dr. Andreas Marks,
I’m a writer who frequently visited the Clark Center for Japanese Art in Hanford, CA, before its closure. I also knew the late Bill Clark, who once gave me a tour of the museum and its archives. I took many photographs, including the “Frog and Mouse” painted scroll. Are you aware if an English translation of the background text exists and, if so, where I might access that information. I’m particularly interested in the “moral” of the painting, as written by the artist.
About a home we lived in fifteen years ago, I write:
The back French doors become my favorite aspect of the house, for the breeze, the rush of the Kings River, and hundreds of croaking frogs on a spring night. So many frogs – they become, as I lay in bed reading, my own personal frog symphony. All through the spring and into summer, I fall asleep to the tune of the frog chorus, something mysterious and soothing about them.
This is the first time I’ve heard frogs croaking since we moved into our Reno home five months ago. The next morning after dinner out with our friends, I text an apology for requesting the best bourbon for my cocktail, ordering a second one, not to mention the after-dinner Duck Farts, since our friends were hosting. They text, “The night was perfect. You both needed to let a little tension fall to the floor last night and we were so honored to help with that.” Tension fall to the floor, exactly what I needed.
On a visit to a new ENT doctor for a simple cleaning of my left ear, I show him a two- year-old MRI report on my spine disclosing, among other random things, a one-inch mass nestled below my brain and behind my sinuses. I’d followed up on the other red flags, all checking out to be nothing of concern or is being monitored, but I hadn’t followed up on this one. A pandemic happened, a move out of California happened, life happened.
Kanpai: The Art of Drinking in Japan
February 11-June 28, 2014
As in other parts of the world, drinking alcohol is an important and multifarious element of social and cultural life in Japan today. From office workers bonding after work, to the tasting of fine domestic whiskeys, to ceremonial cups shared in a wedding ceremony, fermented drink is a social lubricant, a subject of connoisseurship, a sealer of fate and fortune.
Thus begins the $5.00 Kanpai color brochure describing the exhibit at the Clark Center.
A visit to the Clark Center’s website discloses the entire collection of Japanese art once housed at the Clark Center, south of Hanford, had been donated to the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2013. Bill Clark later explained his children weren’t interested in the then sixth largest private collection of Japanese art in the world, nor any organization he approached in California.
“Mark Twain is often credited with saying, ‘Eat a live frog the first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.’ (In truth, that was coined by Nicolas Chamfort and only linked to Mark Twain long after reports of Twain’s death were no longer an exaggeration.)”[iv]
A trace might lead to interference
of, say, oxygen
then thirty-two strains of fungi –
evidence recollecting extinction after the fact:
off-putting soap, cake crumbs,
a case of something noir
Kimiko Hahn, from “The Extinction of Frogs”[v]
Evidence of my future extinction: 100+ pairs of earrings, strewn.
The ENT doctor points to the mass on the CT scan, says it’s soft tissue, an ominous sign. After numbing my nostrils, he gently pokes what looks like an icepick with a tiny camera on the end, up my nose. He uses the word “tumor” for the first time, probably benign, and schedules a biopsy procedure. One week into waiting for the biopsy, my mind takes me to the ugly depths of possible dire outcomes, worse at 3:00 a.m. Dinner with our friends is a release, a welcome diversion. As I stand there in the dark of our back patio, the rhythmic frog chorus begins to seep into my psyche, inducing an unusual calm I haven’t felt in years.
I receive the background transcript of “Frog and Mouse” from the Minneapolis Institute of Art and excitedly dive in.
Inscription (partially illegible but can be summarized as follows):
A man named Bokusai heard that there was one especially holy area in the shrine that he then visited. A man wearing a red monk’s robe was praying while kneeling on the floor of the hall. At that moment, another man, fat and ugly and wearing patched clothes, came out from the rear of the hall and said to the first man: ‘Although you belong to this shrine, you look rather unusual, with a greedy appearance and eyes darting here and there. What have you been praying for?’[vi]
Thus begins the inscription. Further reading discloses the first “man” is a mouse and the second, a frog, who questions the mouse about the intention of his prayers.
In folklore, the “frog in a well” proverb about having a narrow vision of life is found in Sanskrit, Bengali, Malay, China, America, and elsewhere. In Vietnamese, the saying translates to “Sitting at the bottom of wells, frogs think that the sky is as wide as a lid.”[vii]
Am I the mythical frog in a well? Does my perspective need altering?
(Everything leads to infection.)
Hahn, from “The Extinction of Frogs”[viii]
The “Frog and Mouse” inscription continues, as the mouse explains to the frog that he prays “to go where men go,” and wishes for the eradication of cats, he deems his mortal enemies, preventing his freedom to go anywhere and eat anything. The frog chastises the mouse for his selfish desires:
Small-minded thought and praying in such a way is harmful. […] If you lack egoistic desire and thought, and have a pure mind, all beings will respond to that good.[ix]
After texting the frog video to our friends, my wife and I sip decaf coffee on the front porch; it’s the first warm night since we moved in, and we’re actually taking the time to do so. Suddenly we realize from this perspective, the lights of Reno, Nevada are only visible when we are standing. Sitting down, though, the twinkling city below is no longer in view, the dark outline of the Virginia Range, backed by fading pinkish blue sky is beautiful – clearly visible, and we are just as happy with that. Why pray for a better view or longevity or to change whatever actually IS? After several deep breaths, I resolve to relax, take Mark Twain’s advice: Eat the frog. Resolve to swallow the fear and accept whatever comes.
Hoping to inhibit the decline,
curators house the golden poison dart
and Argentine horned frogs for good measure.
without so much as a birthday card –
Hahn, from “The Extinction of Frogs”
Post biopsy surgery, my lovely ENT doctor is all smiles, informing me the mass is not a tumor but a fungal ball, which he says likely flew up my nose years ago (not uncommon for the San Joaquin Valley of California), lodged itself and grew slowly. In a second surgery he removes it, showing me a picture of something akin to a veggie pizza.
All biopsies and cultures come back negative or clear. I buy my doctor two pairs of Spiderman socks, one for him and one for his son.
During my tour of the museum so many years ago, I ask Bill Clark about his deep connection to Japanese art and his collection. “I tell people it’s in my DNA, I think. Once in a while, my wife Libby will make me a pitcher of martinis. I come out here to the gallery, shut myself in, put on Bach, and just be with it.”
The last line of the inscription:
Getsujū of the Great Dragon Studio did this with a drunken brush.[x]
Phyllis Brotherton, memoirist and essayist, holds an MFA from Fresno State University. Her work appears in Under the Gum Tree, Entropy, Essay Daily, Brevity Blog and elsewhere; has received two Best of the Net nominations, and won third place in Streetlight Magazine’s Essay/Memoir Contest with co-author Armen D. Bacon.
[iii] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
[v] Kimiko Hahn, Toxic Flora, Pg. 10, W.W. Norton & Co., NY, NY, 2010.
[vi] Transcript, “Frog and Mouse,” MIA, 43. Getsujū (18th-early 19th century), Pg. 304.
[vii] Wikipedia, Frogs in Culture
[viii] Hahn, ibid.
[ix] Transcript, ibid.
[x] Transcript, ibid.