“This is where mice do sumo.”

Two mice are in the midst of wrestling, with a mouse referee holding a traditional gunbai (wooden war fan). Never mind the wrestlers are spindly, contrary to our expectations of sumo wrestlers. But almost as if to make up for the wrestlers’ anemic appearance is a round ginormous fellow, hovering off to the right, who is watching the match. As it turns out this fat happy one is Hotei, the beach ball-shaped god of abundance and good health. Along with Daikokuten, Hotei is another one of the seven Japanese gods of fortune (previous post). He’s a charitable god and carries his oversized bag everywhere, chock-full of his only possessions, donated food and clothes, and candy to give out to children. It’s not exactly clear what he’s doing here at the wrestling match or what he’s doing sitting in his bag. Perhaps he’s just taking a break from all his good-will.

This is a handscroll painting—with the inscription This is where mice do sumo—by the Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768) who took up his artistic pursuit toward the end of his life. That being said he was no dilettante. In a terrific piece by Seth Segall, the editor of Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings tells us, Hakuin was intent on expressing through his brushwork his Buddhist enlightenment, and produced over one thousand scrolls. “His art transcended the boundaries between high and low, sacred and profane, serious and playful, and verbal and visual.” There has been speculation that Hotei’s bag in the painting represents the Zen circle of Enlightenment. “Could Hakuin have been making fun of sumo by turning the huge wrestlers into small mice?” “Do the black and white mice represent yin and yang—two, but not two?” Segall asks.

The writer adds a “PS” that catches my attention: I thought these mice bore a certain family resemblance to another group of anthropomorphic mice—the Ashkenazic mice of Art Spiegelman’s Maus

An appealing notion it seems whenever skinny mice in human clothes appear, and immediately brings to mind the review I read about the show at the Met and “The Tale of the Mice” (previous post, again). The art critic said: with its cast of well-dressed white rodents. One wonders if Art Spiegelman knew of its existence when he undertook “Maus,” his graphic novel of Jewish mice and Nazi cats.

But Spiegelman might disagree. In MetaMaus, Spiegleman’s back story to his Pulitzer prize-winning book, he reports, in researching images he poured through early photos and postcards of anthropomorphic mice and cats, largely coming from Europe—Belgium and France, with no mention to Japan. Segall actually posed the question to Spiegelman with regard to Hakuin’s mice. Spiegelman apparently suggested “Hakuin’s mice must be Israeli mice because of their martial arts prowess—definitely not diaspora mice!”

2 responses to ““This is where mice do sumo.”

  • akismet-99e1ea3b581224e152e29ae8e14d36b2

    Lorna, thanks for referring back to my post. I am both astounded and charmed by your labor of love devoted to role of the humble rodent in art and culture. Hakuin’s painting continues to intrigue me. I was just playing with it in my blog post, but I have to confess it’s real meaning continues to elude me. I remain hopeful that some serious Hakuin scholar will shed more light on exactly what Hotei is doing at that sumo match!

  • Lorna Owen

    I’m so thrilled you like my blog. Thank you. And yes, I too would love to know more about Hakuin and his Hoteil!

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