A Deep Dive into “Frolicking Animals:” Sengoku Choju-giga and Its Historic Roots

While some may assume anthropomorphic animal art is a creation of the 21st-century furry fandom, it has a long and rich history that spans several centuries and continents. A prominent example of this is the art of Buddhist abbot Kakuyū (1053-1140). The artist was better known by his title of Toba Sōjō (Bishop of Toba,) as he resided as head monk at Shō-kongōin in the Toba district of Kyoto for the final decade of his life.

His best-known work is Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga (“Animal-Person Caricatures”), a series of scrolls which feature animals engaged in a variety of human tasks. The four-volume series, drawn in ink, features anthropomorphic animals doing everything from running food stalls to sumo wrestling to escorting other animals meant to represent nobles.

But why would an artist feel compelled to draw people in current or past power as animals? When these depictions are contemporary, this can have a very practical application of plausible deniability in the face of potential harm. Japanese history is full of this creative sleight of hand, and not only via anthropomorphic art. Edo period kabuki plays often depicted current issues and incidents, barely hidden behind a veneer of focus on earlier, similar historical events.

Screenshot from the SENGOKUCHOJYUGIGA anime that depicts a kappa, a monkey in a crown, a tanooki, and a bird who is holding a gun. Text: "That's really cool."

Perhaps the most famous example is the renowned Chushingura (47 Ronin) bunraku and kabuki plays. Each of the principal characters  — all of whom are either daimyo or some other kind of aristocrat — are named after an earlier set of vaguely similar historical figures in the interest of avoiding censorship.

Running afoul of the rich and powerful could come at a very real and fatal cost. An example of this is later in the Edo period among authors of satirical, popular works broadly called gesaku. Gesaku routinely lampooned the powerful, and authors and artists found their works proscribed by law and themselves often arrested, in the face of sumptuary and moralistic regulation. A particularly noteworthy author of gesaku, Santō Kyōden (1761-1816), was even manacled and sentenced to house arrest during the Kansei Reforms (1789-1801), which attempted to impose both sumptuary regulation and warrior-dictated moralistic standards. Yet in a strange twist, Matsudaira Sadanobu (1759-1829), the shogunate’s chief councilor and architect of the policies that imprisoned Kyōden, quietly sought Kyōden’s autograph, as he was a secret fan. Sadanobu even authored gesaku himself!

Luckily, however, Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga managed to escape this level of censorship. The series of scrolls is a national treasure of Japan, and has cast a long shadow of influence in the development of later art – including modern anime and manga. Most recently, it inspired the anime Sengoku Chōjū giga, which consciously emulates its style in retelling 16th-century stories.�

A section of Choju Jinbutsu Giga, depicting a monkey and a frog resting under a lilypad.
A section of Choju Jinbutsu Giga. (public domain)

Released in two thirteen-episode seasons in 2016, Sengoku Chōjū giga‘s screenplay is by Kumamoto Hiromu and Tsuchiya Ryoichi, with designs by Nielsen and animation by ILCA. The three-minute episodes of Sengoku Chōjū giga (hereafter SCG) retell a number of anecdotes involving political and religious historical figures from the Sengoku through early Edo periods. Some of these, like Akechi Mitsuhide’s attack at Honnoji that killed Oda Nobunaga, or Sanada Yukimura’s stout defense of Osaka Castle, are well-known. Others, such as the Battle of Kanegasaki, the tale of Tokugawa Ieyasu meeting the Nuppefuhofu (better known today as a yokai called a Nuppeppō), or the tenure of Ii Naotora as the female daimyo of the Ii clan, are more obscure.

All of them are told with the historical figures represented as the animal they were most compared in life. Ergo, the cunning Tokugawa Ieyasu who went on to found the third and final shogunal dynasty in 1603 is a badger, an animal to which he was compared in life for the clever politicking that paved the way to his becoming shogun. Toyotomi Hideyoshi is a monkey, as he was called “little monkey” in life, and actively sought identification with Hie Grand Shrine and its primate messengers. Finally, for his famous (and apocryphal) poem about killing one, Oda Nobunaga is a nightingale (hototogisu). Meanwhile, closer to my own expertise in the Tohoku region’s history, northern daimyo Date Masamune is a one-eyed dragon, as he himself encouraged people to refer to him as one even in life.

Still from SENGOKUCHOJYUGIGA depicting a dragon with one eye being followed by an ogre with a fife. Text: "Date Masamune" Text: "Katakura Kojuurou"

My only complaint with SCG is that there are only two seasons. While anime of any length are a significant investment in time, energy, and money, there’s no shortage of topics to be explored in 16th century history especially for a show built in a three-minute episode format. Perhaps, one day, we will see further episodes, even some that are set in different eras in Japanese history. I, for one, would welcome a Bakumatsu (1853-1868) iteration of the show. As I discovered during my doctoral research, like the Warring States Era, the Bakumatsu was also a complex, chaotic time full of larger-than-life characters and episodes across Japan. It would provide ample fodder for more stories in the style of SCG. Indeed, some period art from the 1860s did this, amidst the cutthroat politics and street fighting which centered on Kyoto.

Although SCG isn’t the only recent anthro take on Japanese history the 2016 anime Neko Neko Nihonshi is another I believe it is its conscious emulation of Toba Sōjō’s oeuvre that allow it both leeway for its trademark slapstick, as well as room to talk about real history and historical issues. Neko Neko Nihonshi has a younger audience in mind as well, but its animation style is not trying to emulate historic art.

Not so with SCG. Visually, even if one were unfamiliar with Toba Sōjō, a design lineage to older ink paintings on scrolls is readily apparent. The characters are drawn in lines that evoke calligraphy brushstrokes, and the action moves along a left-right axis, as if along the length of a scroll the viewer was reading. There are even joints along the length of the simulated scroll, which resemble points where paper would be joined. In-story, they sometimes serve the practical purpose of marking a point of scene transition, and bear text designed to look like a stamp that which describes the setting. “Nobunaga’s room” 信長居室 or “On the road in Yamashiro” 山城道中. Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga has similarly placed stamps with the name of Kōzan-ji, the temple to which the scrolls belong. Those familiar with the original will likely recognize this subtle but clear callback.

Still from SENGOKUCHOJYUGIGA that depicts a stunned monkey and raccoon looking at two birds. Text: "If you can't, just torch the place."

By depicting these historical figures as the anthropomorphized animals they were most identified with, their distinctly human personalities shine through, which grounds the often surreal humor. We see something of their essence distilled, and something of the events themselves distilled, even through SCG’s humorous, slightly ahistorical delivery. They stop being larger-than-life heroes and, in an ironic twist, become a bit more human.

Today, we don’t need to worry about running afoul (or afowl, as it were) of a daimyo, yet by continuing this tradition, Sengoku Chōjū-giga captures the spirit of these figures and their deeds. In doing so, it echoes Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga in more ways than simply emulating its visual style, and is a worthy successor to its playful Heian antecedent. Despite its relative newness, the show draws from and builds on a rich history.


About the author

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union (Balance of Seven Press, 2020). She hosts Friday Night History on and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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