The Narrow Road to Oku
On Illustrating Bashō’s The Narrow Road to Oku
By Miyata Masayuki
In the account which he named The Narrow Road to Oku, Bashō makes a journey lasting one hundred and fifty days, in which he travels, on foot, a distance of six hundred ri.
This was three hundred years ago, when the average distance covered by travelers was apparently nine ri per day, so it is clear that Bashō, who was forty years old at the time, possessed a remarkably sturdy pair of legs. Nowadays, with the development of all sorts of means of transportation, travel tends to be quite straightforward in every respect, so it is almost impossible for us to imagine the kind of journey Bashō undertook, “drifting with the clouds and streams,” and “lodging under trees and on bare rocks.”
During my countless rereadings of The Narrow Road to Oku always bore that in mind. The short text, which takes up less than fifty pages even in the pocket-book edition, seemed to me much longer than that, and I felt truly awed by Bashō's 2,450-kilometer journey.
I chose The Narrow Road to Oku as the theme of the exhibition marking the thirtieth anniversary of my career as an artist. As somebody who has been illustrating works from Japanese literature for many years, the subject naturally attracted and interested me. But once I had embarked on the project, it wasn’t long before I realized I had chosen a more difficult and delicate task than I ever imagined.
Last year, to mark the centenary of Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s birth, I produced a set of fifty-four pictures for his translation of The Tale of Genji. This was a formidable undertaking, as I had to grapple with the achievement of a literary genius whom I had known personally. But if producing a single picture to represent each chapter in The Tale of Genji was a matter of selecting a particular “face” or "plane" to represent the whole, producing a picture to represent each haiku in The Narrow Road to Oku a matter of having to select one tiny “point”—a mere “dot.” One misjudgment in my reading, and the picture would lose touch with the spirit of Bashō’s work and end up simply as an illustration that happened to be accompanied by a haiku. I had to meticulously consider each word in those brief seventeen-syllable poems. Then, if I was lucky, from the vast gaps and the densely packed phrases a numinous power would gather and inspire me; at times I felt as if I was experiencing what our ancestors called kotadama, the miraculous power residing in words.
A self-styled “beggar of winds and madness,” Bashō originated and refined a unique genre of fictional travel literature which used poetry as a means of rendering, out of nothing, all of creation. He also wrote:
Journeying is the flower of elegance
Elegance, the spirit of travelers long gone:
The places seen and recorded by Saigyō and Sōgi—
All those are the heart of haikai.
I feel I could ask for no greater favor from my painter’s brush than that I too be able to glean the merest fragment of what Bashō saw, and be able to reproduce it in my work. — Miyata Masayuki