Location: Bowdoin / Academics / Features / 2008 /

Scholar, Web Designer Create Digital Japanese Scroll

Story posted April 19, 2005

Thomas Conlan, Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies at Bowdoin College recently launched an interactive website that allows users to scroll through and examine in detail a famous set of Japanese picture scrolls depicting the Mongol invasions of Japan.

The scrolls illustrate the valor and travails of a Japanese warrior named Takezaki Suenaga, who fought during the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281. Suenaga commissioned the original scroll to chronicle his deeds and to give praise to his commanders, and the gods, for his success in both campaigns. The scrolls were created by five or six artists over several decades and contain what is widely believed to be the first depiction of the use of gunpowder – an exploding cannonball.

The original scrolls, written during Takezaki Suenaga’s lifetime, were lost for centuries, reappearing late in the 18th century in loose sheets. After its discovery, these images were copied repeatedly by interested viewers, before being pasted into two scrolls in 1823. Different copies of the scrolls have added scenes, or have removed or rearranged some in different orders. Copying and even “improving” scrolls was a common practice in pre-modern Japan, notes Conlan.

“Up to this point, you could only view the scrolls as individual scenes printed in books,” he says. “As I talked to people in Bowdoin’s IT department, I began to realize that a scrolling web version could allow you to experience the scrolls as they were originally intended. It would be the next best thing to having the scrolls in your hands.”

The site was developed with Adobe Flash, allowing for a seamless digital version of the scrolls, with smooth, rapid zooming and high-resolution details of the painting and calligraphy. Through this reconstruction, scholars, students and casual browsers alike can experience the scroll as it was originally created – something impossible to convey in the pages of a book.

Conlan published the first English translation of the scrolls in 2001 in a book entitled, In Little Need of Divine Intervention (Cornell East Asia Series). He included a fundamental revision of the Mongol Invasions of Japan in which he presented the scroll more closely to its original version. He developed the website as a teaching tool for his course on Japanese warrior culture, which he began teaching in 1998. Conlan and a cadre of web designers spent years developing the website, which continues to evolve.

“The scrolls are such a wonderful resource,” he says. “Think about how the Mongols swept the world. How many firsthand accounts are there of people who fought the Mongols?”

Conlan says Suenaga’s scrolls offer considerable insight into provincial warrior society, and the human experience of life in medieval Japan. Much of Suenaga’s personality comes through in the scroll’s text, roughly 13 pages of narrative and almost stream-of-consciousness dialogue. There are no quotation marks or distinctions to determine exactly who is talking, which Conlan says makes for a “very immediate and compelling account.”

Detail of calligraphy
Calligraphy in the scrolls provides a lively narrative.

 “You see Suenaga’s persistence,” he says. “In the second invasion, he doesn’t have a boat and is rushing around trying to get one. He lies. He sees a boat coming and says, ‘I am acting on secret orders, let me on this boat.’ He’ll do anything to get there and be at the center of things.”

Scrolls of this type were fairly common in late 13th and early 14th century Japan, but usually were commissioned by the court – not by an individual warrior – which makes them unique. Screens eventually replaced the scrolls as a storytelling art form in the 16th century.

“I see the scrolls as puncturing many of the myths around the warrior culture of Japan,” says Conlan. “Japanese warriors have a reputation for being almost inhuman, super loyal. We have this idea that they’re selfless people who will die for their chief or their lord, but that’s really a 17th or 18th century interpretation. What we see in these scrolls is very human. Takezaki Suenaga disobeys orders, argues with his superiors, and is mostly concerned with receiving compensation for his battle service, rather than dying for some ‘lord.’”

The uniqueness of the Scrolls of the Mongol Invasions of Japan website is that users can scroll through and compare four different versions of the scrolls simultaneously. In addition to a reproduction of the original scrolls, the site presents markedly different 18th and 19th century copies that highlight changing interpretations over the centuries.

Conlan believes his 21st century version – which depicts parts of the scrolls that have been altered – comes closest to how the scroll originally looked before copyists added images. One of the key differences in Conlan’s version is the absence of the pivotal image of a cannonball, which scholars have long held to be its most significant feature. Conlan thinks this projectile and nearby Mongol figures were added centuries later.

Comparison of screen versions
The site lets users remove images from the 13th century version (top view) that Conlan and other scholars believe were added centuries later.

“Even though archaeologists have found projectiles from this period and there are written records of projectiles being used, I believe this is something someone added to the scroll later,” says Conlan, pointing to his monitor, which displays the original scroll as it now exists, as well as his 21st century reconstruction.

“See the cannonball in the 13th century version? There is black smudging around it that resembles the smudging found on the black boots of three figures who were added later. I believe this scene is something someone altered, probably in the 18th century. Some artist who is a good artist wanted to make it more dramatic.”

Because of the website’s interactive features, these scholarly details are transformed into a treasure hunt. There is a Guided Tour function that explains the scrolls and outlines changes made to them over the years. An interactive glossary elaborates significant terminology and images contained in each scroll. Users can even use interactive animations that illustrate discrepancies in the different versions.

Travers, left, and Conlan, have worked together intensively to bring Scrolls of the Mongol Invasions of Japan online.

Bowdoin Multimedia Designer Kevin Travers spent nearly two years designing the interface, assembling scanned photographs of the scenes, and experimenting with programs that could support files approximately 40k pixels wide. The software allowed him to create single, long images of the pictures pieced together, greatly improving the load speed and smoothness of images.

“You can go to amazing levels of detail very fast,” he says. “You can look at the textures on a warrior’s sleeve, or scroll through the entire scroll quickly. It’s an exciting way to use technology for unique storytelling.”

Travers also worked with another Bowdoin professor, De-nin Lee, on a digital 12th century Chinese hand scroll painting that allows students to upload their own colophons (textual responses that were traditionally appended to handscrolls). View this scroll at: http://www.bowdoin.edu/chinesescrolls/

“I think Bowdoin is really ahead of the game with scholarly technology,” notes Conlan. “I don’t know of any other comparable institutions with sources like this online. It was really a matter of people on the IT side who sensed the possibilities. It’s a tribute to the cooperation between the educational technology people and the faculty at Bowdoin.”

Conlan’s most recent book is ”Weapons & Fighting Techniques of the Samurai Warrior 1200-1877 AD, (Amber Books Ltd., 2008).

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I began to realize that a scrolling web version could allow you to experience the scrolls as they were originally intended.
— Thomas Conlan