National TreasureYamai no Soshi (Diseases and Deformities)

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  • Handscroll
  • Kyoto National Museum
  • A甲679

The Scroll of Diseases and Deformities (J. Yamai no sôshi) depicts sundry ailments and abnormalities. Although the original scale of production is unclear, it is known that seventeen scenes from this scroll were extant by the late Edo period (1615-1868). The Kyoto National Museum owns nine illustrated sections: “Hermaphrodite,” “Woman with Cholera Nostras” (diarrhea and vomiting resembling the symptoms of cholera), “Man with Pubic Lice,” “Man with Many Anuses,” “Treatment of an Eye Disease,” “Man with Pyorrhea” (a gum disease that causes one to lose teeth), “Man with a Small Tongue,” “Palsy,” and “Woman with Halitosis.”
The descriptions in the texts accompanying the paintings are not consistent: some give the name and symptoms of the ailment in a straightforward manner, while others introduce the person’s history and then explain the symptom of the disease. Of the latter type, some texts provide the description of actual place and time in which the character lived, and others—such as the “Hermaphrodite” episode—go even further to introduce the person in some detail, thus giving an account of a disease that afflicted a particular individual. Rather than introducing each illness in a clinical way, the scenes draw on the anecdotal appeal of such stories recounting illnesses. The narrative character of the scenes is especially evident in the passage from “Treatment of an Eye Disease,” which tells the story of a man calling himself an eye doctor coming to treat a man living in Yamato Province whose eyes hurt. The quack elects to use acupuncture and lances them with a needle. Far from getting better, the patient is now blinded.
Certain compositions show only the figures and their illness, without any background scenery, while others present a more narrative interest, depicting the everyday surroundings of the sick person. The diviner’s lifestyle represented in the “Hermaphrodite,” the rural house of the “Cholera Nostras” victim, and the most developed scene—the aforementioned “Treatment of an Eye Disease”— all give valuable insight into the customs of the late Heian period (794-1185).
The style of these paintings, originally part of a single handscroll, is similar to that of paintings of the Six Paths of Transmigration (J. rokudôe) made around the same time. Some believe the images of sickness to be depictions of the suffering inherent in the Human Realm. However, the stylistic similarities can be attributed to a shared cultural background, rather than these paintings coming out of similar themes in production. Since the Disease scroll does not discuss the working of karma and is not based on any Buddhist text describing the Six Paths, it was probably not part of such a set. While the scroll may be related to beliefs concerning the Six Paths, it is more likely to have originated from a general interest in collections of entertaining, albeit morbid, tales