Daoist Ritual in Hunan
Produced from the original 2011 field footage of Daoist scholars Mark Meulenbeld (University of Wisconsin-Madison), David Mozina (Boston College), and Gil Raz (Dartmouth College), this series of videos highlights ritual sequences performed by a group of Daoist priests based in Yangyuancun of Hunan Province. This particular clip shows a sequence known as the “transformation of the body” (bianshen 變身), here performed as one component of a rite called “Dismounting from the Horse” (xiama 下馬).
Picturing the Unseen: Traditional Representations of Ninja and the Allure of Invisibility in Early Modern Japan, 1750–1900
Selected for exhibition in the 2014 Digital Salon at UW-Madison.
This digital essay features my work from a course on Japanese visual culture, part of my doctoral minor in Visual Culture Studies. Led by Professor Adam Kern in spring 2013, the course not only provided an exceptional introduction to the visual culture of late imperial Japan, it also introduced me to the world of digital video production. As a third benefit, the course gave me an opportunity to explore areas of research outside of my usual niche. I decided on a lighthearted topic that might reanimate my childhood memories: representations of ninja figures in ukiyo-e prints. This project made clear to me the potential of the digital essay as a medium for presenting research to other scholars and for inspiring students to engage creatively with course material.
Far from the comfortable concealment of shadows and darkness, the iconic ninja assassin now stands as one of the most pervasive pieces of Japanese visual culture to enter into contemporary global arena. Pictured in nearly all imaginable places for mainstream viewing, from cereal boxes to video games to cell phone covers, the enigmatic ninja icon has become a staple part of a cross-cultural East Asian martial arts narrative. How can we account for the enduring allure of the ninja image? What historical circumstances may have led to this fascination?
To answer these questions, this digital essay turns back the clock by two hundred years and explores the earliest surviving images of ninja. Most of these derive from woodblock prints produced in Japan during the reign of the Tokugawa shogunate, also known as the Edo period, from 1603 to 1868. By bringing these artifacts to life within the rich visual culture from which they emerged, we will see that the modern mythos of ninja derives less from historical fact and more from the culturally-specific artistic conventions and complex power politics of early modern Japan. In this digital essay, I argue that the iconography of the black-clad ninja developed out of artistic strategies for portraying invisibility in the kabuki theatre, and the subsequent popularity of this figure reveals an unspoken link between invisibility and political and cultural power.