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Art Through Time: A Global View

Dreams and Visions Art: Utatane soshi emaki (A Wakeful Sleep)

» Tosa Mitsunobu (Japanese, 1434–1525)
Utatane soshi emaki (A Wakeful Sleep)

Utatane soshi emaki (A Wakeful Sleep)
Artist / Origin: Tosa Mitsunobu (Japanese, 1434–1525)
Region: East Asia
Date: Late 15th–early 16th century
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Ink, color, and gold on paper
Medium: Painting
Location: National Museum of Japanese History, Chiba Prefecture, Japan
Credit: National Museum of Japanese History, Chiba Prefecture, Japan

Working in collaboration with the courtier-scholar Sanjonishi Sanetaka (1455–1537), imperial court painter Tosa Mitsunobu created some of the most impressive examples of the small narrative scrolls known as ko-e in fifteenth-century Japan.

Utatane soshi emaki (A Wakeful Sleep) is one of these. Like other scrolls in the genre, it is diminutive in size, and features a story that revolves around a sole protagonist.

A Wakeful Sleep is a notable example of a Japanese dream tale. This particular scroll tells the story of a young female courtier who falls asleep while gazing at the cherry tree in her garden. She dreams first of receiving a beautiful love letter, then later, of being visited by her lover—a man she has never met in real life. The images in A Wakeful Sleep occupy an ambiguous space between dreams and reality. In this particular image we see the woman sleeping, but are left to wonder whether we are looking at the world as it exists or the world conjured through her dreaming.

While touching on Buddhist ideas about the illusory nature of earthly desires, dreams also offer a space for the realization of fantasies that might not be possible in the real world. At the end of the story, the protagonist of A Wakeful Sleep is miraculously united with the man from her dreams.

Expert Perspective: Melissa McCormick, Professor of Japanese Art and Culture, Harvard University

“One of the things about the representation of dreams in Japanese art is the way in which they really mine that sort of state of irreality that comes at the cusp between sleep and waking. One of the best illustrations of the dream tale in Japan is a tale of Wakeful Sleep. It shows the woman lying down in the reclining position with her eyes closed, and near her head is the letter that she dreams of receiving.

There’s another scene where the dream lover appears and is shown appearing in the woman’s dream. And the dream lover is sort of hovering above her head, which suggests that the image of him is actually the inner workings of her imagination. The viewer is caught in this moment of asking whether or not is this a real man or is this the vision in her dream.

So, while dreams were commonly connected to the spiritual or to sacred encounters with Buddhist deities, they were also the territory of romantic yearnings and amorous experiences. Nevertheless, a lot of those Buddhist undertones remained, even in romantic narratives, so that a given relationship between a couple could be kind of cast with a tone of spirituality and given a kind of sense of a fated dimension or something that was divined to be.”

Additional Resources

Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.

Mccormick, Melissa. Tosa Mitsunobu and the Small Scroll in Medieval Japan. Seattle: University of Washington, Press, 2009.

Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art, rev. and expanded ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

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