Project Description

Wood standing seal netsuke attributed to Sanko 

A large and powerful seal, carved as two lean but muscular oni supporting a massive flaming tama. They strain under its weight, leaning forward, one with its mouth open, the other closed. The oval sectioned base on which they stand is pierced and carved around its side with a sinuous dragon, its top incised with waves and its underside cut with a seal, which bears traces of red ink

Unsigned. Osaka, circa 1780


The iconography of the present work is somewhat confused, being a sort of hybrid between a representation of Ryujin’s assistants bearing the tide-ruling Tama, and an image of esoteric Buddhism. On the one hand the dragon is an attribute of the king of the seas, on the other one cannot ignore the significance of the mouths of the oni, creatures not normally associated with Ryujin, nor the fact that the Tama is flaming. We leave interpretation of the subject to those more deeply initiated in Buddhist arcana than ourselves.

As far as we know, this is a unique composition for this or any other netsuke-shi, though we are familiar with netsuke by the same hand. Perhaps the most relevant comparison is with a pair of struggling oni published without attribution in Scholten Gallery’s ‘Expressions of style, Netsuke as Art’, no. 69 (numerological coincidence or intentional pun?). Interestingly here too one of the oni has its mouth open, the other closed, impersonating Nio, passionately exclaiming the ‘om aum’ chant. Further notable wood examples are a tall standing demon, referred to in the Scholten catalogue (Sotheby’s London, Betty Jahss sale, part II, 14th November 1991, lot 129) and the dragons holding a globe in R. Bandini, ‘In a Nutshell’, no. 142. As Sanko’s wood netsuke are fewer than his ivories, it is worth mentioning here another lesser example, an oni no nembutsu, in J. Earle, ‘Netsuke, fantasy & reality in Japanese miniature sculpture’, no. 115.